Climate change can sometimes feel like something happening far away that’ll only reach us in the future. Even more worrying is that Americans are least likely to think they themselves will be harmed by climate change, and over half of Americans say that haven’t personally experienced its effects.
These findings demonstrate a need to emphasize how the crisis is happening here and now, to our communities and wildlife in our backyards. Place-based education, which uses culture, ecology, landscapes, and tangible experiences to guide our understanding of the world around us, can create that connection, allowing us to visualize these impacts close to home in real-time.
Nature’s Wisdom Spreads Far and Wide
We know that moving people to action requires more than just data, we must touch hearts and minds. When we use nature as the conduit for learning about climate change, we contextualize the crisis in places people care about and are familiar with.
Place-based climate education is a pathway through which we can reach a place of empathy and care to inspire collective climate action. Using nature to visualize climate adaptation and response reaches people of all ages and backgrounds, and this knowledge can even spread to their families and communities.
Turning Lessons into Action
Mass Audubon offers various opportunities for place-based education to engage people in both forming connections with the world around them and then acting to protect that very same world in their communities.
Our climate programs provide people with a space for learning and action. For example, our Youth Climate Summit Program, an immersion in climate action, engages middle-high school aged youth in brainstorming, managing, and implementing a Climate Leadership Project in their own towns and neighborhoods.
By learning through nature, our communities, and the places we love, we build lasting connections that drive deeper dedication to acting on the climate crisis that threatens their future.
We can see climate change’s impacts on the health of our world all around us, right here in Massachusetts. Our friends, families, and neighbors have to adapt (just like wildlife and plants) to new and heightened threats – and one of those is a threat to public health.
Warm, Warmer, Too Hot
Warming temperatures bring with them a rise in extreme heat events, which are linked to an increase in hospital admissions for cardiovascular, kidney, and respiratory disorders.
Cities are hit especially hard by extreme heat. Urban areas experience a phenomenon known as “urban heat islands”: when specific parts of cities face significantly higher temperatures than their suburban or rural counterparts.
This heat difference arises because of how well each environment absorbs and holds heat. Suburban or rural areas have abundant plants, grass, trees, and other flora – tools that NASA calls “nature’s air conditioner.” Cities, on the other hand, don’t contain as much flora. Dark asphalt, sidewalks, and buildings that comprise our cities aggravate this problem by actually generating more heat.
An Uptick in Disease-Bearing Ticks (and Others)
Warming temperatures also influence the spread of disease bearing insects. Lyme disease, West Nile virus, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, and Zika virus are all occurring more frequently in the US and are all carried by insects like ticks and mosquitoes. As Massachusetts, warms, these diseases are surviving in and spreading to areas they weren’t able to before.
It’s the Sneezon
Climate change makes springs and summers longer, increasing Massachusetts’ growing season and consequently how long plants produce pollen. Both these byproducts intensify allergy symptoms.
Allergies are only one part of the problem. Burning fossil fuels creates excess greenhouse gasses and pollution, like particle matter (PM), that lowers air quality. Such pollution is directly linked to the development of asthma in young children and worsening asthma symptoms in those already dealing with the illness.
Social Equity in Public Health
Climate change’s disparate impacts are nothing new, and are deeply rooted in history. The very sources that have pumped greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere for years have been overwhelmingly sited near communities of color, especially Black communities. Additionally, urban heat islands tend to map onto almost the exact same locations Black communities were forced into in the 1930s through the formal practice of “redlining.”
It’s no coincidence, then, that marginalized populations bear the brunt of climate change’s public health effects. According to a 2018 study, communities in poverty faced 1.35 times the burden of PM pollution from sources like power plants and cars (also rampant greenhouse gas sources) compared to the overall population, people of color faced 1.28 times the burden, and Black Americans suffered 1.54 times the burden.
Even worse, marginalized communities like people of color tend to have less coverage, access, and use of quality health care. That means already vulnerable communities struggle in obtaining treatment for climate change induced heat-related illnesses, insect-borne diseases, allergies, and asthma.
We Can Fight Climate Change Together
Here’s how we can keep our friends, families, and our most vulnerable populations healthy and safe.
Public health impacts demonstrate that the health of our environment is directly tied to the health of our communities, and some groups are disproportionately affected. Our climate fight must be guided by equity and justice – and we can start acting by learning.
We all learn this pretty early on. Think of your first favorite book or movie that whisked you off into a wonderful, magical world and how that made you feel. Think about the last time you sat down with a loved one to vent your frustrations or rejoice in good news, and how your stories connected the both of you through a sense of trust and understanding.
Storytelling is part of that critical foundation that forms our social bonds but also our larger culture itself; our stories are tools that allow us to reach a place of empathy in those we care about.
That’s why storytelling is indispensable in our collective climate fight
When dealing with something that can seem as amorphous, but also as frightening, as climate change, our words can bring the phenomenon down to a personal level. Weaving a tale about your first coastal flooding incident or when you noticed your allergies worsening along with rising temperatures imbues climate change with real feeling and real experiences. These stories allow us to visualize climate change in a much more tangible way. This isn’t just happening across the world – but here and now, to people we know and love, and to our neighbors around us.
Our stories also have the opportunity to give others hope when spirits are low. Through stories, we can connect climate action to successful solutions, community engagement, and innovation. We can demonstrate just how much all of us can do if we work together. Acting alone can be overwhelming and scary, but connecting with a community who understands your story can help you overcome these challenges.
Anyone can tell their climate story
If you want to try, just follow these simple steps:
Start with what you care about
Share your experience of what’s happening here and now
My name is Rishya, Mass Audubon’s Climate Change Communications Manager. I’m a Boston-based bird nerd, an ocean enthusiast, and a climate champion. I use stories to build a bridge between science and the human connection, telling tales of sea turtles and lobsters, but also of people and communities – all with the goal reaching that very same place of empathy. These stories help me connect people feeling lost about the climate crisis to real solutions they can engage in, so that we form a community that supports each other and acts together.
Our “Meet a Climate Champion” series will feature everyday people, like you and me, invested in solving the climate crisis. Our champions will tell their stories, taking you through their journey of why they care, what they’re doing to act, and what brings them hope.
Talking about climate change, telling our personal stories, is one of the best ways to reach peoples’ hearts and inspire climate action in our communities.
If you’re looking for ways to stay connected with Mass Audubon’s climate action work in the meantime, sign up for our newsletter, Climate Connection, for climate information, community action, and solutions. You can also nominate your local climate champion by commenting below or sending us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.