Nissa Tupper is the Climate & Health Program Manager at the Minnesota Department of Health.

Minnesota is known for its frigid winters, 10,000 clear-blue lakes, and loon calls echoing through its north woods. But climate is changing the iconic “Mighty North” landscape we call home. Winters are becoming much warmer (one of the fastest warming states thanks to our northern latitude), our water cycle is changing (heavier, more frequent rains), and growing seasons are shifting (pollen seasons are increasing in length). From more exposure to Lyme disease, to more unhealthy air quality days from wildfire smoke, to stress and anxiety because of extreme weather – we’re feeling the health impacts of climate change. 

To help Minnesotans adapt and support healthy people and places in the face of climate change, the Minnesota Department of Health’s (MDH) Climate & Health Program (Program) is taking a strength in numbers approach, building partnerships across sectors and disciplines. Here’s what we’re seeing work:

Lifting up Internal Climate and Health Champions

Our Program facilitates the MDH Climate & Health Workgroup (Workgroup) and the implementation of the MN Climate & Health Strategic Plan (Plan). It’s a prime example of how we successfully build partnerships to strengthen climate and health adaptation capacity and integrate climate and health in all policies.

We worked with internal staff representing most parts of MDH starting in 2016 to form our Plan framework, detailed programmatic action strategies, and our Workgroup. Today, between 20-30 representatives across MDH continue to participate in the Workgroup to implement the plan.

We’re midway through implementing the five-year Plan and recently released a Progress Report to share successes and next steps. By the end of last year, we completed 11 activities, actively have another 18 in-progress, and support the implementation of another 27 ongoing activities. For example, 

  • The MDH Family Home Visiting Program provided information to family home visiting nurses about actions pregnant and parenting teens could take to protect themselves and their children from health hazards related to climate change. They added a new “MDH Partner Corner” section to their newsletter to share partner information and started by featuring climate and health. The first topic, focused on keeping your family safe from harmful algal blooms, was featured last July during the height of Minnesota swimming and boating season.
  • The MDH Environmental Public Health Tracking Program evaluated and added data on climate and health-related issues including pollen, heat index, Lyme disease, and West Nile Virus to the Minnesota Public Health Data Access Portal. This effort is making important climate and health data more publicly accessible, elevating information for at-risk populations and service providers. For example, while our messaging often focuses on protective steps for the very young and the very old, we know that people 15-34 years of age in Minnesota and Wisconsin are also at higher risk for emergency department visits for being sick from the heat. 
  • The MDH Well Management Section is ensuring that test kits are readily available and improving communication for private well users impacted by or preparing for a flood. This is a priority because flooded wells can be a source of contamination, posing at least a short-term risk to drinking water quality and human health. The Workgroup has been an important avenue for prompting action and partnership on climate change and health issues like this. Workgroup member Kara Dennis, a hydrologist with Well Management, noted that “Mitigating the negative effects of climate change requires a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach. In order to help protect groundwater from contamination during flooding, I need to work with various groups within MDH, as well as local programs to prepare for future flooding events.”

Key tenets of the Program’s approach to shaping this work include lifting up climate and health adaptation champions within MDH, authentically collaborating with partners in both the development and implementation of activities, and supporting capacity gaps. For example, we intentionally focus on coordination through our framework, but not to control. Workgroup members take full leadership on deciding what activities they want to pursue and our Program offers support to achieving these activities by providing technical assistance, holding regular check-ins, and coordinating cross-program connections. With this inclusive and collaborative approach, we’re able to achieve greater impact within MDH and for Minnesotans than we could by acting alone. It also helps ensure long-term success by embedding climate and health throughout the agency.

Empowering Emergency Managers as Climate and Health Adaptation Leaders

We also build relationships with external partners to support climate and health adaptation capacity across the state and help center planning and policy efforts on health. Minnesota has had its fair share of climate-related disasters over the last 40 years, to the tune of $10-20 billion dollars in damages, so it was imperative that we partner with emergency management and preparedness professionals.  

Emergency management professionals (EMP) are on the front-lines of responding to climate-related natural disasters and protecting the health and wellbeing of communities. However, they can lack access to and understanding of climate projection data to help minimize the impacts of climate-related disasters. As a way to help planners and decision-makers in emergency management and related fields understand regional climate trends and how they connect with health, our Program and EMP partners co-produced climate and health data profiles tailored to each of the six Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM) regions in Minnesota.

The climate and health profiles bridge the gap between climate scientists, public health, and EMP by providing information on historical climate trends, climate and population projection data, and local case studies to illustrate the links between extreme weather and natural disasters and what climate projection data can indicate for similar events in the future. The profiles provide a framework for discussing local risks related to our changing climate and support the development of climate adaptation strategies that protect community health and safety. 

We released the profiles via a webinar in August 2018. Attendees were surveyed after the webinar to gather insight into attitudes about climate projection data and guide further technical assistance. Survey results indicate that 95% of EMP intend to use climate projection data in some way, primarily by integrating these data into hazard mitigation and response plans. 

Following the webinar, Program staff are visiting each HSEM region to share their respective regional profile and discuss resiliency strategies with local EMP and their partners. This gives us the opportunity to build deeper partnerships and make state government more accessible at the local level. In addition to fostering relationships and accessibility, a big opportunity with these profiles is to serve as a building block for EMP to use climate projection data in their planning process. We worked with our State Homeland Security and Emergency Management partners to integrate this information into the 2019 State All Hazards Plan and are working with University partners to embed the information in the county-level all hazard plans as well. 

This effort is the first time our Program has partnered with EMP, strengthening relationships with state and local partners and ensuring that emergency managers and other planners have the information they need to craft relevant climate mitigation and adaptation strategies to protect public health. 

Partnerships Pave the Way Forward

These are just a few examples of how we’re bridging from health to other disciplines and sectors to build local climate resilience through partnership. Yes, climate changes are intensifying, but we have the power and responsibility to actively create healthy people and places. A major lever of influence is through building relationships. Strength in numbers gives us a greater opportunity to inspire more strategic, equitable solutions and close the gap between climate vulnerability and climate resilience.

Suggested citation: Tupper, Nissa. “Strength in Numbers for Greater Climate and Health Impact.” Health and Climate Solutions Blog: George Mason University. August 13th, 2019.