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Both/and thinking came to me while facilitating a meeting with environmental activists, public health professionals, and emergency preparedness experts. RESOLVE convened the meeting to explore synergies between national environmental groups, and public health and emergency preparedness associations. Since the 2010 Senate failure to enact a carbon cap and trade system, environmental groups have focused on local and regional programs to reduce fossil fuel use through energy efficiency and conservation, support for alternative energy, and incentives for carbon sequestration.
Meanwhile, city and county public health departments are developing plans, programs, and responding to disasters from heat stress, increased rates of allergy, asthma, and complications from lung diseases. Emergency response managers are developing plans and responding to unprecedented floods, droughts, and extreme storms. As RESOLVE prepared for our May 14 meeting, we interviewed federal, state, and local leaders and regional coalitions adapting to climate changes and making plans to increase resiliency. However, we found very few examples where coalitions were trying to PREVENT climate change AND respond and adapt to it.
During the meeting, 25 environmental, public health and emergency preparedness leaders explored what their sector focused on and with whom they worked. In particular, participants explored gaps and missed opportunities. Why were environmental groups coming so late to adaptation projects? Why should we focus on an environmental issue when local budgets are stretched already? Why don’t public health groups talk about the causes of climate change when they develop public health strategies? Why was it so rare for foundations that fund climate science or mitigation projects to fund adaptation strategies?
During the meeting, several participants noted that public health services include prevention, but not if prevention means changing U.S. energy policy. Similarly, emergency preparedness staff noted that disaster risk reduction focused more on reducing the likelihood of a risk occurring. An example for emergency preparedness might mean installing sea walls to prevent sea level inundation rise—not supporting carbon emissions reductions. All three sectors explained that they had to work within their members and constituencies way of seeing the problem and solutions. I have heard the same concern in other climate/public health dialogues, professional public health staff can be motivated to work on heat shelters to prevent heat stroke, but not on decreasing carbon emissions, which would reduce the likelihood of increased urban heat. Environmental, public health, and emergency preparedness groups perceive that they did not have the mandate or resources to take on the climate change issue.
Climate change is a big problem and big problems tend to illuminate differing social change beliefs, interests, strategies, and relevant level of activity. As climate change impacts increase and international and national proposals fail, civil society could end up spending more time and energy on ensuring public health, responding to disasters, and trying to reduce carbon emissions. Without communication and strategic coordination, each sector could end up stretched very thin, trying to handle a large problem without shared analysis, objectives, allies, and coordinated strategies.
Problems and solutions are never either/or. As we begin experiencing the impacts of changing climate, more of us will need to respond with both/and thinking and actions.
Juliana E. Birkhoff is an experienced mediator, facilitator, trainer, and conflict resolution scholar. She focuses her practice on complex scientific and technical problems about water quality and quantity, watershed planning and restoration, land use and development, pesticides and chemicals policies and community right to know issues, and other natural resources and public health issues.
She has conducted extensive research on collaboration and consensus building. Her previous research include best practices for integrating complex scientific and technical information into collaborative processes, how to integrate scientific and community knowledge in consensus-building, and several evaluations of consensus building processes.
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