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New NIH-Funded Project Brings Public Health Faculty and Community Leaders Together to Seek Climate Justice

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Written by Tyler Smith on August 22, 2023

Record-breaking heat and drought. Thick blankets of wildfire smoke. Walls of wind-driven flames. Pelting hail. Swath-cutting tornadoes. The summer of 2023 has been a constant reminder of the powerful effects of climate change. But the trying season is only one dramatic recent reminder of the changes and the toll they have taken on neighborhoods, communities, and economies in the form of air quality, water resources, food production and other factors that affect the quality of people’s lives.

The effects are not borne by people equally. Individuals living in communities hobbled by poverty, discrimination, and lack of access to resources like housing and healthcare suffer the effects of climate change disproportionately. The Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH) and community partners in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado and the neighborhoods of West Denver are out to change that with a National Institutes of Health-funded project that is the product of years of relationship building between ColoradoSPH faculty and residents of these communities.

The Mountain West Alliance for Community Engagement-Climate and Health (ACE-CH) Hub aims to work collaboratively to secure “climate justice” for these Colorado communities, said Katie Dickinson, PhD, associate professor of environmental and occupational health and for the Center for Health, Work & Environment in the ColoradoSPH at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Dickinson is co-principal investigator for the project with departmental colleague Kathy James, PhD.

“We all understand that climate change is affecting communities and all human beings around the world,” Dickinson said. “However, it is not affecting all of us at the same time and in the same ways. Groups of people who have been historically marginalized and disenfranchised are going to be affected sooner and harder. The concept of climate justice is [identifying] solutions to climate change that recognize and address the disproportionate impacts.”

The long-term problems of climate change

Those impacts are rooted in daily life. In the historic, culturally rich San Luis Valley, prolonged drought has threatened water supplies and crops and contributed to more frequent and intense dust storms and wildfires, James said. These changes, in turn, have increased the frequency of conditions like asthma, which has long been a major problem for children and adults in the region, she added.

The neighborhoods that comprise West Denver have historically faced systemic barriers that have left them with “limited access and disinvested communities,” said Cerise Hunt, PhD, MSW, ColoradoSPH associate dean for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, director of the Center for Public Health Practice, and assistant professor of community and behavioral health. She is also a co-investigator for the ACE-CH Hub project.

Hunt said the origins of many of these barriers include redlining—the 1930s-era practice of denying mortgages, loans and other financial services to residents of some neighborhoods as a way of keeping them racially segregated and isolated. The problem continues to have lasting impacts today. Meanwhile, industrial zoning in many low-income areas produces high levels of toxins that degrade air quality for residents. At the same time, heavily industrialized areas shrink the amount of space available for parks, greenery, shade and shelter from rising temperatures.

“All of these factors contribute to increased health risk,” Hunt said.

The example of West Denver “highlights that climate change isn’t something entirely new and different,” Dickinson added. “Climate change is intersecting with all the problems, challenges and opportunities that communities are already experiencing. It’s a threat multiplier.”

Building a structure for community involvement

The ACE-CH Hub centers on finding solutions to climate change through collaboration between ColoradoSPH and community leaders. The first phase involves convening advisory boards to design and implement projects. These include two Community Advisory Boards led by residents of West Denver and the San Luis Valley, respectively. A Policy and Practice Advisory Board, coordinated by Dickinson, will include local, state and workforce representatives charged with promoting ideas and policies that build climate resilience. Finally, a Climate Science Advisory Board, coordinated by James and filled by climate experts from a variety of disciplines, will work to ensure possible solutions are scientifically sound.

Hunt emphasized that the success of the ACE-CH Hub project will rely on “the key principles of community engagement.” That means building strong relationships with residents, something she and Dickinson have long done in West Denver. James has likewise spent many years working together with and listening to the voices of farmers, workers and community and political leaders in the San Luis Valley.

“The first step is to learn from the community and understand how they are experiencing climate stressors,” Hunt said. “We will establish a shared understanding, then identify priorities and opportunities and ways we can move forward in action to bring about change and true climate justice.”

Building on grassroots innovation

James noted that “climate innovators” in the San Luis Valley continue to explore “cutting-edge methods” for mitigating climate change and adapting to it. New farming techniques, such as growing barley on top of alfalfa to produce multiple crops without tilling, and installing solar units between hectares of open land, further demonstrate the power of local ideas in a resource-challenged region.

Meanwhile, seemingly small events demonstrate the potential for promoting climate justice in West Denver. A small park in the Valverde neighborhood was recently renamed Ullibari Park in honor of a family of influential community leaders, including Evon Lopez, who sits on the ACE-CH Hub’s West Denver Community Advisory Board. The renaming celebration of an oasis of greenery and shade that provides relief from the heat and a space for community pride and bonding also offered an opportunity to speak about both climate change and resiliency in down-to-earth terms, Dickinson said.

“There was a lot happening in that tiny space,” she said. “It was a chance to highlight a climate mitigation solution and make connections with the community.” In turn, she added, the event drew attention to the need for more information, capacity building and funding to support ideas that promote climate resiliency.

The connections the ACE-CH Hub forges between underserved communities and ColoradoSPH, public health officials, climate experts, policymakers and others are a prerequisite for helping historically excluded people protect themselves from environmental changes, Hunt concluded.

“As we engage in efforts to achieve climate justice, we must stop and pause and ensure that we are elevating the voices of farmers and communities of color,” she said. “We have knowledge of climate change and justice, but we also know that success will come only if the community is at the table and planning with us as equal partners.”

Note: ColoradoSPH is also launching a PhD program in Climate and Human Health that will focus on policy, equity, justice and ethics. Dr. James was instrumental in developing the program, which will debut in the fall of 2024.