UCSF Sustainability Stories

Sophia Labeko

Your Colleagues Advocating for Climate Health

Health care providers and scientists might feel stretched thin with teaching, researching, clinical appointments, and administrative commitments, but physicians at UCSF remind us that some causes are too great to ignore.

Heather Whelan, MD, UCSF School of Medicine understands the over-committed reality of the health care field but asks for her colleagues to consider that, “climate change will touch almost any health issue for their patients or any other area of interest that they might have as a health professional and that I would encourage them to think about how whatever areas they are currently focused on will be impacted by climate change.”

Advocacy Efforts

Whelan along with other UCSF health care professionals, including Adrienne van Nieuwenhuizen, MD, UCSF Weill Institute of Neuroscience, belong to a local advocacy group called Climate Health Now (CHN). CHN is a group of “medical professionals in California who are protecting and improving the health of all people by advocating for urgent, equitable climate solutions.” Members discuss current issues, develop advocacy plans, meet with legislators, and do whatever else to “advocate for our patients’ health today and a livable climate tomorrow.”

As a CHN member, Whelan has had opportunities to meet with local council people and members of congress to advocate for policies that mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, and to advocate for groups of patients most impacted by pollution and the effects of climate change. “I think these conversations have reminded me that these legislators are just people too, and that most people are concerned about climate change and would like to help to do something to address it,” she says.

van Nieuwenhuizen has been inspired by CHN’s campaign: demanding that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District vote “yes” on the safest version of Rule 6-5, requiring Chevron and PBF Energy refineries to install modern retrofit technology to reduce deadly particulate pollution. Particulate matter (PM) air pollution kills up to 3,000 Bay Area residents every year, with local oil refineries generating a significant amount of PM pollution in the Bay Area. The proposed Rule 6-5 required that the Chevron and PBF refineries install “wet scrubbing” technology, reducing PM pollution by an estimated 70%. “As a doctor and a member of CHN, I had the opportunity to meet with board members and share the terrible health impacts of particulate matter air pollution” reflected van Nieuwenhuizen. “I was overjoyed when the board finally voted in favor of Rule 6-5.”

Guidelines for Advocacy at UCSF

Understandably, there are many questions about advocacy efforts while working for UCSF, a state entity and nonprofit organization. As a UCSF employee, you’re able to advocate for issues on your own time and using your own resources. Part of UCSF Community & Government Relations, UCSF Advocates has a page dedicated to explaining the do’s and don’ts of advocacy at UCSF. In addition, if you’re a visual learner, here’s a video detailing the guidelines.

“UCSF is a leader in health equity because of our dedicated staff, faculty, and students who work tirelessly to reduce disparities and call out injustices,” said Allie Jones, director, UCSF Advocates. “UCSF Community & Government Relations often receives questions about how employees can engage in political activity. When in doubt, connect with our office for guidance. A disclaimer such as – ‘I’m a doctor at UCSF but advocating today on my own behalf’ is generally advised.”

“To advocate with UCSF, UCSF Advocates is the university’s vehicle to advocate for broad policy change at all levels of government. Join UCSF Advocates and speak out for policies that impact our mission,” recommends Jones. 

You can sign up for the UCSF Advocates listserv here and take action with UCSF on local, state, and federal policy priorities.

Impact on Patients

Both Whelan and van Nieuwenhuizen are concerned about climate change because it threatens their patients’ health and lives. They witness the health impacts of climate change in their daily clinical practice. Whelan works at the VA and many of her patients live in areas affected by wildfires. Evacuating and leaving all your belonging behind is stressful enough, but when you add co-morbidities such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or congestive heart failure, “these effects of climate change put them at increased risk when exposed to smoke and air pollution,” explains Whelan. In addition, “many of our patients are also marginally housed or unhoused, thus suffering the effects of extreme heat.”

van Nieuwenhuizen, a resident with UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, sees the mental health impacts of climate change. She has patients whose “mental health acutely deteriorated during heat waves; other patients whose anxiety became more severe due to asthma exacerbations from wildfire smoke; other patients who lost their homes and loved ones in wildfires; and other patients who are struggling with grief as they become aware of the severity of the climate crisis.”

A Message to Fellow Healthcare Professionals

While the commitment to their patients drives Whelan and van Nieuwenhuizen to address climate change, it is the network of supportive and like-minded people that gives them the tools to act.

Whelan’s words of encouragement:

“I would ask [my colleagues] to think about their commitment to patients and communities, to the privilege we have as health professionals, and the unique ability we have to create positive change.”

van Nieuwenhuizen’s words of encouragement:

“Most of my healthcare colleagues are also worried about climate change, but many are unsure what to do about it, especially when they have very little free time outside of work. They may be feeling guilty about not being perfect at recycling. The truth is that recycling on its own has limited benefits, but mobilizing and joining other concerned colleagues can actually save lives. I hope my colleagues will consider joining Climate Health Now or one of the many other wonderful groups working to address climate change.”