UCSF Sustainability Stories

Ana Toepel, Green Impact, March 2019

UCSF Faculty Act on Climate-Health Connection

As the climate crisis intensifies, and the climate-health connection becomes clearer, there is a growing call for medical professionals to engage with climate change issues. Two UCSF faculty members, Dr. Mary Williams and Dr. Robin Cooper, are answering that call by prioritizing the connection between climate and health and taking action on climate change issues.

Both Dr. Williams and Dr. Cooper are active members of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), which aims to provide a strong medical voice for climate solutions, and are working within their specialties’ professional associations to advocate for policies that decrease the use of fossil fuels and alleviate climate change impacts on health. In this story, we share some of their recent achievements and history with this work, which can serve as inspiration for the entire UCSF community as it engages with the climate-health connection.

Mary Williams: Changing the Game within the American Academy of Dermatology

Dr. Mary Williams, UCSF Clinical Professor, Dermatology, was inspired to get active around climate change after reading the work of her son, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Wisconsin, which shows the extreme changes the planet’s habitats will undergo. Her initial involvement was with a local PSR group, where she helped to form a committee for climate change and other environmental issues. “I realized I could no longer sit on the sidelines and assume our government would address the climate crisis before us,” Williams shared, “Feeling I had to do something, I decided to start by working within my own professional community.” After reading an article on the effects of climate change on skin diseases, it seemed important that her specialty organization, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), be engaged with these issues, so she formed an expert resource group (ERG) with several of the paper’s co-authors and other colleagues. 

The AAD officially recognized the ERG on climate change and environmental issues in the fall of 2017, and it held their first meeting in March 2018. Since then, the group has accomplished the following:

  • Moved the AAD to join the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health (the Consortium)—which brings together associations representing approximately 500,000 clinical practitioners to facilitate their efforts to increase public awareness about how climate change harms our health—and to support several of the Consortium’s initiatives, including signing on to the Call to Action on Climate Change and Health, which came out of the Global Climate and Health Forum at UCSF;
  • Worked with AAD to develop a partnership with My Green Doctor, which offers dermatologists a free program to adopt sustainable practices; and
  • Successfully encouraged the AAD to adopt a position statement on climate change and publish a position statement about climate change’s impact on skin health.

In its position statement, the AAD acknowledges the “dermatologic consequences of climate change” and commits to educating patients and the public about the health impacts of climate change—and to working to mitigate them. Some of the climate change and environmental impacts being seen in dermatology are increased acne, eczema, and skin aging from air pollution; a rising epidemic of melanoma and other skin cancers; and the movement of infectious diseases into new locations. As Dr. Williams states, “Skin is the organ that’s fully exposed. It may not wave a flag at us all the time, but it’s out there experiencing what’s happening in the environment.” Williams has devoted a section of her website to posts about climate change and the skin.

Dr. Williams encourages others in the UCSF community to get involved by finding out what their professional societies are doing about climate change and by looking at what their departments, clinics, or labs are doing to be greener. She says, ““We can also communicate our concerns about climate change and its health consequences to our patients and the public. Health care providers have a ‘trusted voice’—we should use it.” 

Robin Cooper: Advocating for Policies in the American Psychiatric Association and Beyond
picFor Dr. Robin Cooper, UCSF Assistant Clinical Professor, Psychiatry, “Climate change is the most significant risk to health care.” Dr. Cooper believes that every discipline has ways it’s being impacted by climate change, and she has experienced it penetrating her practice—from people having PTSD due to exposure to climate crises to mental health patients being affected by extreme heat to increased exposure to the elements for mentally ill homeless people. 

Dr. Cooper was fortunate to find a core group of psychiatrists who were committed to making the connection between climate change and mental health, educating others, and using their expertise to influence their professional organization, the American Psychiatric Association (APA). They created an organization called the Climate Psychiatry Alliance (CPA), which leverages its relationship to the APA in its work, since it is the official voice of the field and has access to psychiatrists nationwide. The CPA influenced the APA’s leadership to act on climate change and to provide education, training, and tools for their members to this end. Thus far, they have achieved the following:

  • Moved the association to write a position statement on climate change and mental health;
  • Influenced the leadership of the association by querying officer candidates regarding their vision for leadership on climate change and publicizing the responses for membership consideration during elections;
  • Kept the conversation alive with numerous panels and discussions at APA meetings this year;
  • Successfully advocated to get the APA to join the Consortium; and
  • Worked with the APA on divestment from fossil fuels.

The APA’s position is that “climate change poses a threat to public health, including mental health,” and that mentally ill people are disproportionately impacted by its consequences. In its statement the APA also commits to collaborating on efforts to alleviate the harmful health and mental health effects of climate change. Cooper says the keys to successfully working within associations like the APA are “learning where the levers of power are and how to influence them…and sustaining and operationalizing the conversation,” which involve recruiting more people into the work and engaging in collaborative discussions with leaders. She also says that “working within the professional organization for their specialty to address climate and health is something that everyone in the UCSF community can do.”

Dr. Cooper has been engaging at the policy level, too, as she believes policy work is really important in terms of the big effort needed to address climate change. One exciting recent action was presenting a letter to Nancy Pelosi’s staff that calls for congressional leadership on climate change and underscores the urgent threat to health it presents. The letter was signed by an ad-hoc group of approximately 38 physician leaders, including Dr. Williams and many others from UCSF. During the meeting, the group’s partnership and expertise was offered to Pelosi to help her create health messaging for legislative solutions. They also plan to advocate for having presentations by healthcare experts from different disciplines at House climate change committee meetings. “I would suggest that policy is a powerful preventive health tool,” Cooper shares. 

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