Mission critical

From clinics to the state Capitol, an interdisciplinary team of U ‘champions’ is combating climate change by calling out the ways it harms human health
By Justin Harris

The seawalls were no match for the encroaching ocean.

Built to safeguard the coastal Indian city of Visakhapatnam, the walls retreated in the face of higher water and stronger waves — repeatedly torn down and rebuilt, each time closer to the streets, buildings, and people they were meant to protect.

One of those people was 8-year-old Laalitha Surapaneni. Now an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Medicine, Surapaneni remembers watching the sea inch closer to her hometown. Even as a child, she realized that climate change and its effects — including hotter temperatures and rising sea levels worldwide — weren’t just an idea in a textbook; they were a tangible reality nearly at her doorstep. 

“The sea was literally rising before my eyes, in my lifetime,” she says.

As the world changed around her, Surapaneni gained a great respect for nature — and a keen understanding of humans’ place within it.

“My parents raised me with an eye toward the environment,” she recalls. “They always reminded me, ‘Humans are a part of nature. And if we destroy nature, we’re going to destroy ourselves.’”

Surapaneni grew up, earned her medical degree, and moved to the U.S. to begin her career. But she has never forgotten her parents’ lesson or her formative experience with climate change. In fact, it’s what led her to Minnesota in 2018.

Besides joining the faculty as a clinician, Surapaneni came to the U of M to be the Medical School’s climate champion. She’s one of eight such faculty champions at the University, each one representing a health science college, school, or program on campus. Together, they are working to illuminate the very real impact climate change is making on human health, both globally and in Minnesota.

Through a new climate and health curriculum, student and faculty engagement, and outreach to the public, the climate champions hope to help people adapt to their changing environments and help limit damage to the climate.  

“We want to change the conversation about climate to show what it really is: a significant health problem,” Surapaneni says. “And if we’re able to address it, there are going to be tremendous health benefits.”

Members of Health Students for a Healthy Climate

Members of Health Students for a Healthy Climate are collaborating on projects that link climate and health. Sitting, from left: Jack Inglis, Zöe Kondes, Nikki Russell. Standing, from left: Emma Butzer, Jessi Coryell, Niamh Hart, Marie Gilbertson. (Photo: Scott Streble)

Connecting the dots

Climate change is often framed as a political, economic, or national defense issue. It’s rarely discussed as a major health threat. According to a 2018 Lancet report, only 4 percent of the 43,000 scientific articles published in 2017 about climate change made any link to health, and only 1 percent focused specifically on the issue.

That’s a potentially catastrophic mistake, says Teddie Potter, Ph.D., a clinical professor in the School of Nursing and the leader of the U’s interprofessional climate change and health initiative (which includes the climate champions). She is also the cocreator of the statewide grassroots organization Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate.

Between more heat-related illnesses and deaths, a longer and more severe allergy season, and geographically shifting infectious diseases, climate change is undeniably linked to health, she says. The connection isn’t all bad, however: the healthy behaviors that can combat it, like eating a plant-based diet and walking instead of driving, not only lead to healthier people, but a healthier planet, too. 

Armed with that knowledge, Potter says, health professionals have a unique opportunity to cut through the noise surrounding the climate change debate and frame it around health — a universally compelling and crucially nonpolitical concern.

“We know that there are many ways to talk about climate change, and yet we haven’t seen any popular agreement about it,” she says. “People trust health providers over all other professions, so we thought maybe we could communicate this in a way that wakes people up.”

The first step in that mission is making sure the students training to be health professionals today are equipped to talk about climate change and health when they begin their careers. Potter enlisted the climate champions to create a climate-focused curriculum that could be easily incorporated into already-established lectures across disciplines. 

The result is a set of nine short slide decks that any instructor can use to introduce or reinforce the connection between climate change and health.

“Say you’re teaching about asthma,” Potter says. “You can use our slides that explain the lengthening pollen season in Minnesota and new plants that are coming to our area and how that might impact patients. It takes two seconds to add that material, but it means students are starting to hear about climate change more often.”

Empowering the next generation of health care providers to address climate change is critical, Surapaneni agrees.

“Young people are the ones who are going to be impacted by climate change the most,” she says. “They don’t need to be convinced that it’s real; all they want to know is, ‘How do I take action?’”

Action plan

We want to change the conversation about climate to show what it really is: a significant health problem. And if we’re able to address it, there are going to be tremendous health benefits.

– Laalitha Surapaneni, M.D.

Ideally, that introduction will prepare students to engage with their patients about the topic in the future, says Surapaneni, who serves as the faculty adviser to the U’s interdisciplinary student-run group Health Students for a Healthy Climate. There, she engages interested students in new ideas and projects related to climate and health.

Jack Inglis is a third-year medical student at the U of M and a cochair of the group. He’s working with Surapaneni on a project that’s exploring new ways to communicate climate-specific health information to patients. 

Inglis says he’s always been passionate about the environment, and being able to infuse that interest into his education has been exciting. He also considers it his responsibility.

“Physicians have historically played a big part in shaping debate and response to public health issues, and I don’t think it should be any different with climate change,” he says.

And while that perspective is echoed by many of his peers, it’s one that’s only recently become the norm. 

Phillip K. Peterson, M.D., is a professor emeritus of medicine at the Medical School, an infectious disease specialist, and a member of the Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate group led by Potter. Peterson joined the group in 2015 after realizing he had never acknowledged climate change and its impact on health in his 47-year career.

“About four years ago, I gave a talk about infectious disease at a conference about climate change,” he says. “There, I learned a lot more about climate change and concluded very quickly that this is the single biggest threat to humans. And yet, up until that time, I knew zero about it.”

Motivated by the seriousness of the threat, Peterson now works with Potter and others to educate practicing health professionals as well as peers in his community.

“A lot of physicians still aren’t up to speed on this,” he says. “But once they realize the scope of this issue, hopefully, they realize, ‘Holy smokes! We’ve got to get involved.’”

Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate is hosting a conference at the U of M on April 4, 2020 — called Code Blue for Patient Earth —  that’s tailored to health practitioners in Minnesota. The goal, Peterson says, is to drive home the point that climate change is affecting the health of people in the state and show how health professionals can help patients adapt. 

Reasons for hope

Teddie Potter, Ph.D., Headshot

Teddie Potter, Ph.D., says health professionals have a unique opportunity to communicate the threat of climate change to patients and the public. (Photo: Scott Streble)

Physicians have historically played a big part in shaping debate and response to public health issues, and I don’t think it should be any different with climate change.

– Jack Inglis, third-year medical student and cochair of Health Students for a Healthy Climate

Surapaneni is hoping to move the needle politically, too. She’s testified at the Minnesota Legislature, offering her expertise about how climate change affects health and how state policies must reflect that connection. She says physicians’ voices are needed in climate advocacy. 

“We are duty-bound to prevent what we cannot treat,” she says. “So we have to be vocal in communicating the reality of our climate crisis to our legislators and advocate for climate policies that will keep our patients healthy.”

Surapaneni’s advocacy includes discussion about the inherent inequality of climate change’s impact. She notes that people who have contributed the least to climate change often end up suffering the most from its effects.

“I had a patient who was experiencing homelessness [who was] admitted with an asthma attack on an extremely hot day,” Surapaneni recalls. “She did not have access to air conditioning and couldn’t afford medications. This is how climate change magnifies existing health inequities to impact the most vulnerable.”

With experiences like that in mind, she says health professionals can play a crucial role in developing climate-adaptation plans for neighborhoods and cities to protect those who are most at risk.

Besides her political advocacy, Surapaneni also connects with the public through town halls and community talks. Minnesota, famous for its bitterly cold winters, is now one of the fastest-warming states in the country. For many Minnesotans, Surapaneni says, climate anxiety is setting in, but so too is a desire to take action. 

“The town halls leave me energized, as more people are ready to get involved,” she says. “Minnesotans have an unrivaled can-do attitude, which gives me hope.”

Not surprisingly, Surapaneni also turns to Twitter to talk about climate change. Social media is just one more way to get her message out to a large audience. 

“There’s a ton of misinformation out there about climate change, and I want to be a clear scientific voice,” she says. “I also get to see the work other people and organizations are doing across the world. It keeps me going in my mission.” 

Finding those bright spots is important, because, as Potter admits, climate change and its potentially devastating impact on the planet can quickly become overwhelming. 

“I wake up, and it’s almost like a night fright as the reality hits me of what we have to lose,” Potter says. 

She points to a photo of her grandson on her desk. “This little guy was born last year, and I don’t know what kind of world he’s going to be facing. 

“Every species comes to a point, usually because of changes in the environment, where they either break down and become extinct or they break through and evolve. We are at that point.”

Every species comes to a point, usually because of changes in the environment, where they either break down and become extinct or they break through and evolve. We are at that point.

– Teddie Potter, Ph.D., School of Nursing

It’s a terrifying either-or scenario, but Potter sees opportunity for a better future. To create the best-case scenario will require an all-in approach, she says, one that calls on health professionals to be part of a diverse, worldwide coalition of activists who are dedicated to making the planet and its people healthier.   

“If we can pull it off, our future will be more hopeful and better than anything we have now,” Potter says. “It will be a more equitable world. It will be a world that prevents suffering rather than patches up suffering. It will be a world where every person has the ability to rise to their full potential. All of those things will have to happen for us to break through. 

“And I’m putting my money on breaking through.”

Published on October 15, 2019

Lead photo: As the Medical School’s climate champion, Laalitha Surapaneni, M.D., works with U of M students, her patients, and Minnesota lawmakers to show how climate change affects human health. (Photo: Scott Streble)

Web extra

Screenshot of the Climate Change website

View an introduction to the U’s climate and health curriculum.

How climate change affects health

Climate change stems from increased levels of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere. From there, the consequences cascade outward, ultimately affecting the health of people in Minnesota and across the globe. Here are some of the ways that happens:

Extreme heat can cause heat stroke and cardiovascular failure.

More severe weather causes injuries and increased anxiety and mental health concerns.

Polluted air can intensify asthma and heart disease.

Mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects are expanding their geographic range, bringing new diseases to new areas.

Extended pollen season is intensifying allergies. In Minnesota, the pollen season is about 21 days longer today than it was in the mid-1990s.

Water and food scarcity can cause malnutrition worldwide.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health

Meet the champions

Meggan Craft, Ph.D.
College of Veterinary Medicine

Kylee Funk, Pharm.D.
College of Pharmacy

Scott Miller, O.T.D.
Occupational Therapy, Center for Allied Health Programs

Teddie Potter, Ph.D.
School of Nursing

Cyndee Stull, M.D.H.
School of Dentistry 

Vishnu Laalitha Surapaneni, M.D.
Medical School

William Toscano, Ph.D.
School of Public Health

Nicole Zahnle, M.Ed.
Medical Laboratory Sciences, Center for Allied Health Programs