In late October, the Health and Climate Solutions program staff from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, our team and the seven grantees of the Foundation met in Boulder, Colorado. This gathering provided a valuable opportunity for grantees to meet each other and share overviews of their projects.
Given the diversity of the projects — from a program to improve access to safe drinking water in Alaska Native Communities to one to improve the tree canopy around elementary schools in Austin, Texas — an observer could easily wonder how these grantees fit under the same program umbrella. What is it that unites them?
That question is misleading, because this diversity is central to the nature of health and climate solutions. The impacts of climate change on health are both many and disparate, which is why the response to these challenges must follow suit. These solutions can — and should — take on very different aspects of the challenge, from implementing and examining approaches to indigenous regenerative farming practices, to testing the impacts of household energy efficiency and weatherization on community health and resilience. Meeting in person with all of them at once, however, allowed us to experience first-hand a remarkable amount of consistency that weaves these various projects — and project teams — tightly together.
A Broader Understanding of Health
One consistency was the shared way of thinking about “health” itself and the role of health in our lives. A narrow, albeit important, understanding of climate change as a health concern is that it’s increasing the harms and risks of various illnesses — like asthma, allergies and heat stroke. Often, the first thought for responding to this narrower vision of health would be to increase our preparedness for these impacts and to educate the public and policy makers about the urgency to respond to climate change as a health emergency. While the grantee’s vision of climate change as a health issue in no way contradicts this narrower definition, their vision of health is much broader. These health and climate leaders define “health” as an individual’s and community’s ability to thrive — physically, mentally and socially. Seen through this lens, protecting and enhancing the ability of children to enjoy active play during school recess in Austin and the ability of families to provide safe drinking water to their children in Alaska become parts of an identifiable whole.
Approaching Health and Climate Solutions with a Health Framing
Another consistency, married to this vision of health, is an ethos among grantees that responding to climate change is about putting health, broadly defined, first. It’s an ethos reflected in the way they talk about their work. We all have inherited the terminology of environmental sciences to frame our response to climate change: We must pursue mitigation and adaptation. The grantees have consistently translated this environmental-ese into the language of health. They described steps to prevent the worst harms from climate change, promote health and prepare their communities for coping with the changes and consequences of harms that cannot be prevented. For both prevention and preparedness, their first priority is the most vulnerable among them.
Centered on Community
A final consistency might be called a consistency of community context. While the program highlights communities that are responding to climate change through a health and equity approach, the grantees are pursuing these projects as part of their broader efforts to strengthen their communities. The community-based organizations are naturally playing a central role among the partners, but the collaborative spirit we saw among the partners for each project was clearly borne of shared experience, intimate knowledge, and shared commitment to their communities.
These hidden consistencies are yet another reminder that communities have been — and will be — leaders in addressing the health impacts of climate change. These projects are strong examples of the innovative solutions that will help build a Culture of Health, while also mitigating climate change and protecting communities from its impacts.
Suggested citation: Gould, Rob. “Meeting with the Health & Climate Solutions Grantees: The Hidden Consistencies.” Health and Climate Solutions Blog: George Mason University. December 13, 2019.