Climate change and nurses

This story was published in the Winter 2021 issue of The Washington Nurse magazine.

Wa nurse climate change

Smoke from Washington state wildfires reddens the sky, August 2017

A message on health and climate change, and a call to all nurses #

This past summer, while working from home and in search of my new normal” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I was faced with short­ness of breath and burning eyes due to smoke from the West Coast forest fires. I looked out my window and saw the burnt orange sun rise over the Cascades, but the mountain range was hidden by the smoke. Is this our new normal?

In addition to the forest fires, other perva­sive elements impact the air we breathe and the climate we live in. Burning fossil fuels such as coal and gas increases carbon dioxide and partic­u­late matter in our atmos­phere and contributes to plane­tary temper­a­ture increases. In terms of global heat, this past September was the hottest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmos­pheric Admin­is­tra­tion (NOAA). Whether one thinks the planet’s increasing temper­a­ture is man-made, or a cyclical natural process the Earth has gone through over millennia, the results are the same: Our planet is getting warmer, and this is affecting human health and the environment.

Partic­u­late matter and health outcomes are highly corre­lated. Partic­u­late fine matter, known as PM2.5, comes from combus­tion; fireplaces, car engines and coal or natural gas-fired power plants are all major PM2.5 sources. PM2.5 parti­cles settle into the lungs, along with the heart, brain and every other vital organ, and damage our forests, water­ways, soils and ecosys­tems. Along with green­house gases (GHG), PM2.5 is a major contrib­utor to climate change. The resulting extreme weather events can promote infec­tious diseases, increase vector and water-borne illnesses and create distur­bances in food and clean water distri­b­u­tion, thereby impacting the health of vulner­able popula­tions — children, the elderly, those with chronic diseases, people of color and under­served populations.

Now is the time to get off the fossil-fuel tread­mill and move to a more socially just fuel economy. Nick Manning, who leads the climate change workgroup at the Washington Chapter of Physi­cians for Social Respon­si­bility (WPSR) states, As we slowly recover from these recent manifes­ta­tions of our fossil fuel addic­tion, we must also deal with the under­lying condi­tions that will lead us here again if ignored. Climate change is a health issue; just like smoking in the U.S., it will take the trusted voice of nurses to change our behavior.” He further states, COVID-19 has made failings in our health care system obvious, and climate change will put stress on those same weak spots — leading to really dire conse­quences for commu­nity health. There­fore, nurses must help deal with climate change to protect the health of their patients. Watching major fossil fuel projects in Tacoma and Kalama being seriously debated this fall, while the West burned to such an extent that the air was unbreath­able, is unacceptable.”

"Just like smoking in the U.S., it will take the trusted voice of nurses to change our behavior.”
— Nick Manning, Washington Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility

As regis­tered nurses, we are charged with protecting the health of our patients and the environ­ment. In fact, environ­mental health is the founda­tion of our practice. Florence Nightin­gale noted that nature alone cures,” adding, Nursing puts patients in the best condi­tions’ for nature to act upon them. The health of the home and commu­nity are critical compo­nents in an individual’s health.” She also stressed the impor­tance of a healthy environ­ment to promote healing.

As nurses, we are bound to our standards of practice and our codes of ethics. The American Nurses Associ­a­tion (ANA) says in Standard 17 of its Nursing Scope and Standards of Practice”: The regis­tered nurse practices in an environ­men­tally safe and healthy manner, which outlines strate­gies to promote a healthy and safe commu­nity and practice setting.” Moreover, Provi­sion 9 of ANA’s Guide to the Code of Ethics for Nurses with Inter­pre­tive State­ments” states: The new code calls upon nurses to be concerned for eco-justice, in part because of the inter­de­pen­dence of human health, the health of the environ­ment and ecology.”

Nurses are well positioned to address climate change and improve the health of our commu­ni­ties. By partnering with legisla­tive leaders and commu­nity partners, meaningful zero-carbon polices can be devel­oped to reduce GHG emissions. WPSR and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environ­ments (ANHE) each have climate change workgroups that provide the science and systems needed to promote advocacy. In addition, ANHE has two programs to draw from: Nurses Draw Down and the Nursing Collab­o­ra­tive on Climate Change and Health. Let’s use our voices and our colle­gial collab­o­ra­tions to advocate for the planet and human health.

  • National Defense Research Committee (NDRC, n.d.). The Partic­u­lars of PM 2.5: Why partic­u­late matter…matters. https://​www​.nrdc​.org/​o​n​e​a​r​t​h​/​p​a​r​t​i​c​u​lars-pm-25.
  • Nightin­gale, F. (1946). Notes on Nursing: What it Is, and What it Is Not. New York: Appleton-Century.
  • American Nurses Associ­a­tion (2015). The Nursing Scope and Standards of Practice, 3rd ed. Silver Spring, Maryland: American Nurses Association.
  • American Nurses Associ­a­tion (2015). Guide to the Code of Ethics for Nurses with Inter­pre­tive State­ments: Devel­op­ment, Inter­pre­ta­tion, and Appli­ca­tion, 2nd ed. Silver Spring, Maryland: American Nurses Association.