Feature Stories

Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact, June 2016

Spotlight on Alanya den Boer:  Connecting Climate Change and Health

AlanyaAlanya den Boer, a masters student in Communication Science at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, is a visiting scholar and intern with UCSF’s Office of Sustainability.  She has been interviewing faculty and students on how to strengthen the connection between health and climate change.  Her specialization is health and society, focusing on communications and behavior science.

She recently participated in the UC Carbon Slam, which brought students from all 10 campuses to Silicon Valley to present their climate science and carbon reduction research in three-minute pitches at a live competition before a panel of esteemed judges and guests. Her pitch, titled Talking about Climate Change and Health with your Physician, explored the question, “What is the potential role of physicians in addressing the issue of climate change and health during their conversations with patients and do they see themselves in the position to address this issue?”

Below she shares some thoughts on climate change and health and what she hopes to accomplish in her internship. 

1.  What are you hoping to accomplish in your internship?

In my opinion, studying abroad is a one of the must dos to expand your knowledge, gain (life) experience and be able to proliferate yourself. Therefore, I definitely wanted to do my internship abroad. Since my study focused barely on the links between climate change and health (which is changing fortunately!), I decided to search for an internship focusing on these links. I found this internship here at UCSF. Besides the fact that UCSF is an extremely good University, the progressive sustainable initiatives and corresponding opportunities made me decide to go to this University.

I’m working on three different projects during my internship which will all help expand my knowledge and skills about the links between climate change and health, environmental sustainability and the role and importance of education, advocacy, engagement and communication related to climate change and health.

First of all, I hope to contribute to the important project at UCSF to integrate ‘Environmental Sustainability and Health’ (ESH) in the health professions curriculum. ESH refers to 1) the impact of climate change on health and 2) the impact of the health sector on the environment. Education about climate change is essential for all students, especially for tomorrow’s health professionals. I hope to obtain best-practices and new insights to share in the Netherlands. Before I came to the U.S. I discovered and realized that the links between climate change and health were totally new for everyone I spoke to, including medical students. None of my medical friends was aware nor had learnt anything about climate change and its impact on health during their courses. However, they were really interested. So, there is much to do!

Secondly, I not only hope to meet inspiring people (I really do here), but to learn how to engage and inspire others. I think todays challenge is to stimulate people to get involved in actions to combat climate change and to focus on the very positive, even though it is a really serious and threatening issue. Helping organize the EARTHEALTH1 two-day conference in April, I hope I helped engage students and staff and to make people think about their possible role in addressing the issue of climate change.

Finally, I’m doing my own research about the potential role of physicians to address the issue of climate change and health with their patients. Physicians are well-positioned to talk about climate change with patients. They can link climate change to patients’ health (which increases personal relevance), they are seen as trustful sources of information and have a wide reach (especially general practitioners). By conducting interviews with experts from all over the U.S., I not only hope to discover effective ways for physicians to address the issue of climate change, but also to let them actively think about this issue.

2.  What do you see as the link between communications and changing behaviors associated with sustainability?

Although there are people who deny climate change, fortunately, many people are aware of it. However, what they can do about it is often less known. Modern society with its complex systems, the food system for instance, makes it difficult for people to behave in a sustainable way. Why would you minimize waste if the majority of products is packed? Why would you minimize car use if you have a car? Why would you shower shorter if there is enough fresh water available? Why would you ‘green’ your lifestyle anyway if you don’t see the immediate benefits and your neighbor doesn’t change his lifestyle at all? Especially for people growing up in wealthy nations, it’s hard to realize that our behaviors have serious consequences for the environment and that we can behave differently. This is where effective communication has to play a role. I think individuals certainly can make a change. At the end it’s all about individuals and their behavior. We have to stop blaming others and saying that changing individuals own behavior is a drop in the ocean. As long as we do that, nobody will change his behavior and nothing will happen. Last week someone said to me ‘driving is against your principles’ and ‘acting against climate change is your mission’. However, ‘my principles’ and ‘my mission’ have to be everyone’s principles and mission, because ‘my principles’ are about their health and well-being. I think messages have to come from a variety of sources, since different sources reach different people. Tailored messages are important, since this increases personal relevance. Messages that address peoples own interest and concerns are more effective.

3.  What tactic or strategy do you think is most effective when trying to shift a culture toward sustainability?

Climate change isn’t a problem that can be solved with one tactic or strategy. In my opinion there are a few important components in order to shift a culture towards sustainability.

First of all, communication, education and framing climate change as a health issue. It’s essential to show people it’s not about polar bears, but about humanity. Earth will perfectly survive without us, but we will definitely not survive without earth. Climate change isn’t an issue you choose to be interested in. Nor is it only an issue for specific people. It’s an issue for all of us and it should be integrated in all we do. I think making the link between health and climate change is essential, since this increases personal relevance. As said before, the links between climate change and health are totally new for many people, even for people within the health sector. Education is essential to not only increase peoples’ knowledge, but also to give them the skills to act. Climate change and sustainability not only has to be integrated within environmental sciences, it is an issue to be addressed in all studies, from law and medicine to psychology and mathematics.

Secondly, we need to make it easy and fun to act on climate change. ‘Make the healthy choice the easy choice’ is often used for health prevention interventions. Nowadays, we have to say, ‘Make the sustainable choice the easy choice’. A focus on practicability, entertainment and inspiration is essential besides raising awareness and pointing out the threats of climate change for humanity. When challenges are too great or people feel powerless to act a coping mechanism will be activated; the result is denial. So, besides raising awareness and linking climate change to personal health, it’s important to show successful, inspirational and realistic stories to empower people.

Thirdly, we need to find opportunities for more collaboration and to expand existing techniques, systems and interventions. Change has to come from multiple levels and actors in order to stimulate and inspire others and to achieve a positive spiral towards a sustainable culture. This means action from within governments, governmental organizations, non-governmental organization, businesses and individuals. The urgency to combat climate change requires action from all levels in society. In fact, only then it’s possible to effectively combat climate change. The call for ‘Health in All Policies’ nowadays can be modified to ‘Health and Environment in All Policies’.

Effective techniques, systems and interventions to reduce environmental harmful practices already exist. We already know how to generate green energy, so it’s a matter of expanding these techniques around the world. Sharing best practices within and between countries is essential.

4.  How do you see the link between health and sustainability?

I think sustainable practices are the most important health asset of the 21st century. Creating sustainable societies will be the most powerful and effective health-prevention intervention. Without making an effort to act sustainable, all other efforts to improve health will become useless. Our health and the climate are linked in so many (complex) ways, that it is even hard to realize. Climate change has both direct, as well as indirect, effects on human health and most health impacts are difficult to estimate. However, fortunately many actions to combat climate change also have a positive impact on human health, the co-benefits of mitigation. These actions not only refer to governments and laws. It also means individual behavior. For instance, eating less (red) meat benefits health and is one of the most effective individual actions to combat climate change.

5.  What call to action do you have for the UCSF community?

Expand your knowledge about climate change, its urgency and its impact on health and most important, become active in the following ways:

1.  Get involved with the amazing project of UC to reach carbon neutrality by 2025. Think about how you can contribute to this project, how you can collaborate with others and how you can involve others.

2.  Advocate for action against climate change by reaching out to politicians and policy makers and let your voice as (future) health professional be heard (there are many advocacy organizations).

3.  Communicate with colleagues, fellow-students, patients and the general public about climate change, its impact on health and ways to become active.

4.  Set the good example with your own behavior!