Dorothy Barnett worked for years on climate change. She just didn’t talk about it much.
Since the Climate + Energy Project’s inception in 2007, Barnett, the executive director, has focused efforts on renewable energy, air and water quality, and other environmental issues. But while the Hutchinson-based organization’s sustainability initiatives have helped promote its commitment to conservation and innovation, Barnett deliberately avoided talking about climate change outright because it tended to alienate the audiences she was hoping to reach.
Following the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Barnett shared that approach at a gathering at Yale University, where she delivered a presentation “How to Take Action on Climate Change Without Talking About Climate Change.”
But about five years ago Barnett and Rachel Myslivy, the two-person team helming the organization, realized that ongoing research warranted reexamining their position amid a proliferation of public health concerns tied to environmental factors.
“Some people couldn’t relate to melting ice, rising sea levels and West Coast wildfires, so we had to find Kansas-specific data to show them effects already underway in our state,” says Myslivy, the group’s assistant director.
By integrating Kansas Leadership Center competencies into statewide workshops, they started with where attendees were in the process, encouraging them to test multiple interpretations and work across factions while exploring the connections between environment and human health as part of their education and outreach efforts.
In 2017, with funding from the Kansas Health Foundation and the Turner Foundation Inc., the Climate + Energy Project created the WEALTH Partnership to explore the intersections of water, energy, air, land, transportation and health in Kansas and ways to build resilient communities in the face of a changing climate.
“We realized we needed to connect climate change with public health instead of polar bears, and began incorporating that into the dialogue,” says Barnett. “It was risky for us to begin talking more openly about climate change, but as a result we’ve had more engagement.”
Myslivy says environmental interactions across the state often speak to the KLC competency of loss.
“Even if you’ve experienced drought or flooding or wildfires, it can still feel distant,” she says. “But when we ask people if they know someone who’s battled mold in their walls or who’s developed asthma or worsening allergies, they can relate more easily to the data that shows how climate change is impacting their health and the health of their communities.”
Barnett and Myslivy have noticed the effects personally as well as professionally. Barnett’s once mild seasonal allergies now require two medications year-round, and Myslivy administers tick medicine to her dogs throughout the year.
“I mentioned getting adult-onset asthma at a recent gathering of 15 people, and four others said, ‘Me too,’” says Myslivy.
Droughts and floods in Kansas alter not only the prairie but also the mental state of farmers and ranchers who experience higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression and despair as a result.
A Kansas Health Institute issue brief published in 2019, using data provided through the American Lung Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other entities, has lent additional credence to the Climate + Energy Project’s conversations.
One of the organization’s big pushes currently is getting Kansans to acknowledge the challenges that climate change will create for the state, while encouraging policymakers to respond.
In 2019, the Climate + Energy Project – with the support of 40 other groups – released the Kansas Climate + Health Declaration.
The declaration “aims to increase awareness of the impacts of climate change on public health, to increase civic engagement on climate action in Kansas, and to advance policies that build community resilience and safeguard the future of our state.” It’s housed on ResilientKansas.org, a website that includes resources to educate people and help them anticipate and prepare for eventualities.
Myslivy says that until the public health effects became more prevalent, individual organizations were often reluctant to address issues perceived to be within another group’s purview.
“Organizations that may have previously just focused on water or energy efficiency now are collectively addressing public health concerns,” says Barnett. “We have a shared purpose, and that’s been key to bringing this resource together.”
She says 10 years ago community conversations circled around whether people believed that climate change exists.
“Now we’re not only confirming that climate change is a problem, but we’re telling people how it impacts them and what they can do about it,” says Myslivy, who travels the state addressing Kansas Department of Health and Environment administrative teams and the public through Kansas Rural Center town hall meetings, faith communities and other groups.
Some of the declaration’s solutions include increasing investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, promotion of electric vehicles and other low-emission transportation; soil health and water conservation practices; statewide access to health care; and enhancing water and air quality.
But there are a lot of challenges on the horizon that will require community planning.
For instance: “We have small, arid landfills in drier parts of the state that don’t require lining,” Barnett says. “But if these areas start getting more intense bouts of rainfall, then there is potential for groundwater pollution that would require action with financial impacts to the community.”
Given the Climate + Energy Project’s focus on connection, when COVID-19 made in-person gatherings impossible, Barnett and Myslivy quickly shifted their efforts to online happy hours and educational webinars to help people stay informed and provide a forum for processing pandemic experiences.
“Issues of equity became particularly obvious during the pandemic, because having access to utility services is a critical piece of being able to stay safe and healthy,” Barnett says. “Although we have a cold weather rule in Kansas that prevents utilities from shutting off power for lack of payment, there is no comparable hot weather rule. While some utilities are working with individuals who’ve gotten behind on their bills, others are moving ahead with shutting off service.”
The pandemic and global protests about police brutality prompted Barnett and Myslivy to more directly and publicly highlight the connections between racism and climate change.
Myslivy explains that racist policies, such as redlining, have forced people of color into lower-resourced neighborhoods, which are now more significantly impacted by climate change. Redlined communities historically have fewer green spaces and more concrete, which leads to the heat island effect, she says, noting that formerly redlined communities can experience temperatures up to 12.6 degrees hotter than their non-redlined neighbors.
Additionally, inefficient housing often leads to higher energy bills and increased health care costs, placing a greater financial burden on redlined communities overall.
Barnett says Black people often live in polluted urban areas at a higher rate than whites, frequently near train tracks and power plants, and are three times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma and three times more likely to die from an asthma attack than the national average, according to research conducted by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
“Systemic racism keeps people of color in poverty and impacts their health,” she says.
The Climate + Energy Project’s resiliency efforts include not only facilitating philosophical change but also providing practical support and technical expertise to partners so that they can connect with their constituents while traditional communication methods are temporarily suspended.
Barnett says that although she and Myslivy are just scratching the surface in their discussions about community resilience, they’re excited about the community leaders and advocates they’re encountering who are willing to intensify their engagement to identify solutions, particularly in the wake of recent events.
“It’s like a stone cast in the water with ripples going a lot of directions,” says Myslivy. “We don’t know what will happen, but we hope it will be good.”
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2020 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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