Air Pollution Disproportionally Affects People of Color, Lower-Income Residents in DC

The rates of death and health burdens associated with air pollution are borne unequally and inequitably by people of color and those with lower household income and educational attainment in Washington, D.C., according to a new study.

Air pollution is considered the leading environmental risk factor to health, and recent efforts have successfully brought down levels of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, in the air in the D.C. region.

The new study found that while deaths and health burdens associated with PM2.5 halved between 2000 and 2018 in the D.C. area, disparities and geographical segregations in health effects persist.

Most impacted by PM2.5 air pollution are people living in wards five, seven and eight in the District’s east and southeast regions. Researchers found in southeast wards, baseline disease rates are five times higher for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and stroke, up to nine times higher for all-cause mortality and coronary heart disease, and over 30 times higher for asthma emergency department visits, compared to northwest neighborhoods.

In these most impacted neighborhoods, residents have 10% lower education and employment rates, 10% more residents are living in poverty, their median household income is $61,000 lower than households in the rest of the city, and residents have about 10 fewer years of life expectancy. The top 10 impacted neighborhoods have a 54% higher proportion of Black residents and a 44% lower proportion of white residents.

This study highlights the importance of detailed health and air quality data, and the researchers hope it can guide future policymaking to address environmental health disparities and serve as a model for addressing air pollution health assessments elsewhere. The research was published in GeoHealth, AGU’s journal investigating the intersection of human and planetary health for a sustainable future.

“We knew that concentrations were higher in the east [of D.C.], and we knew that people were getting sicker in the east, but I don’t know if we were able to tell before that they were getting sicker because of pollution,” said lead study-author Maria Castillo, a graduate student in City Planning at MIT. “Now that we apply all these calculations, all these concentration response functions, we’re able to tell people, ‘Air pollution is the cause of some of the morbidity outcomes that you are seeing in this area.’ Making that connection between pollution and health impact outcomes I think is very powerful.”

Unequal health outcomes can be attributed to two main drivers, according to study co-author Susan Anenberg, an environmental health expert at George Washington University. First, air pollution concentration differs by neighborhood. Infrastructure such as highways or bus depots can release significant pollution into a neighborhood, negatively affecting residents.

The second driver is an individual’s health status, independent of air pollution. Rates of underlying disease persistently differ by neighborhoods, with lower life expectancy and greater rates of asthma, health endpoints and emergency visits seen in D.C.’s southeastern neighborhoods. Those underlying health issues can make residents more vulnerable when exposed to pollutants and result in higher levels of poor air pollutant-related health outcomes.

“You can’t think about air pollution in isolation. When it comes to health risks and environmental justice, we have to think of the total lived experiences that people are having,” Anenberg said. “If folks don’t have adequate access to quality healthcare, that means when they are exposed and have health effects as a result of that air pollution exposure, they may have worse outcomes because they’re not getting the treatment that they need.”

Focusing on Fine-Resolution Data

Researchers worked with new exposure assessment tools to measure the impacts of air pollution in the nation’s capital. To evaluate air pollution, Castillo and her co-authors used pollution estimates that combined information from on-the-ground air monitors with satellite data to capture some of the spatial differences in pollution levels across the city.

For health outcome data, they looked at both Centers for Disease Control data as well as administrative disease rate data obtained from the D.C. Department of Health, which provided health data in greater detail on a local scale.

Researchers aim to take advantage of the unique position of D.C. as a city with thought leaders in environmental justice and policy, and with more granular health data than other states, to make scalable solutions applicable in other regions. They hope this study can be used as a model to not just bring down overall air pollution but create targeted policy.

“I think one of the strengths of the study is that it really laid out a road map that could be done other places,” said Jonathan Levy, an expert in Environmental Health at Boston University who was not involved in the study. “The air quality data they used, that’s universally available every place across the U.S. … there are real opportunities to take this kind of approach and do it much more widely.”

This study could also be used as a model help ensure policymaking is driven by health data that accurately reflects racial diversity and health outcome disparity in populations — something that was not historically the case, according to Kelly Crawford, study co-author and Associate Director of the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment.

“Doing further studies that at the very least acknowledge the disparity or lack of diversity in data sets… I think that is the role of government and research in addressing racism,” Crawford said.

Environmental Social Work: A Call to Action

Photo Credit: United Church of Christ

What is environmental justice? Dr. Robert Bullard, often called the father of the environmental justice movement, in an interview with the Union of Concerned Scientists described it as environmental justice centers on fairness, equity, and particularly racial justice. For decades, the movement has worked to make sure that all communities—especially communities of color and low-income communities—are given equal protection. We have environmental laws on the books in the United States, but they’re often not applied and enforced equally.

It isn’t difficult to believe that the poorest get the worst – that the most vulnerable populations are exploited. But it is not as easy to identify ways that social workers can advance environmental justice and I have been asked several times how specifically social work can play a role in the environmental movement. This article attempts to clarify social work roles in addressing environmental injustice.

In 2011, I published a piece on Environmentalism & Social Work and the importance of social work adopting environmental priorities has only become clearer since that time. Many students have expressed an interest infusing environmental concerns into their work. Instead of viewing a person in the environment, they find it equally important to view the environment in the person.  Environmental social work sometimes referred to as ecosocial work is different from ‘regular’ social work in that it takes an ‘ecocentric’ instead of a people-centric view. The ecosystem is at the core of practice rather than the person.

The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare proposed 12 Grand Challenges for our profession. All of these challenges will become worse if we don’t give priority to this one:  “Create social responses to a changing environment”

The Academy goes on to illuminate this challenge: The environmental challenges reshaping contemporary societies pose profound risks to human well-being, particularly for marginalized communities. Climate change and urban development threaten health, undermine coping, and deepen existing social and environmental inequities. A changing global environment requires transformative social responses: new partnerships, deep engagement with local communities, and innovations to strengthen individual and collective assets.

Historically, the profession of Social Work has been slow to embrace remediating environmental injustice as in the scope of our practice. Fortunately, there has been a burgeoning social work literature on the subject. A 2017 content analysis of the literature published in the British Journal of Social Work identified three themes for social workers to explore in ecosocial work:

Creatively apply existing skills to environmental concepts and openness to different values and ways of being or doing

Shift practice, theory and values to incorporate the natural environment: This shift implies a move to ecocentrism with the core value being that all beings have equal access to safe and clean environments. This aspect suggests using social work skills such as empowerment, team-building, community development, management, anti-oppressive practice, holistic interventions, and advocacy to address and mitigate environmental destruction. As first responders, social workers often respond to the community aftermath of natural disasters, but ecosocial work calls for us to be more proactive and preventative in our actions to prevent environmental deterioration and disaster.

Learn from spirituality and indigenous cultures: Appreciating cultural diversity is a given principle in social work practice and in ecocentric social work valuing and using the wisdom of native and tribal cultures is prioritized. Acknowledging the interconnectedness of all life is paramount. How can people live in harmony with the environment?  How can social workers ensure sustainable environments for the physical and emotional well-being of inhabitants? Concepts of transpersonal theory would be helpful in individual and group interventions.

Incorporate the natural environment in social work education: The increasing literature suggests that social workers have a base from which to study the subject. Some schools of social work have adopted concentrations in community sustainability and environmental justice.

Appreciate the instrumental and innate value of non-human life: The concept of biosphere and biofilia are emphasized in ecosocial work. Looking to the natural environment for restorative and transcendent experiences are emphasized.  The premise of adventure-based programs and animal-assisted therapy are certainly reflective of this concept.

Adopt a renewed stance to a change orientation

Change society: Social workers are charged with being “change agents” yet the change required to ensure environmental safety is too often neglected. Valuing environmental and ecological justice should be the driver for change. Advocacy and legislative initiatives that aim for ameliorating environmental injustice are necessary. For example, supporting fair districting and elimination of gerrymandering enables marginalized populations to have a vote that counts.

Critique hegemony: Challenging the social construction of dominance by a particular class calls for radical thinking and action. Anti-oppressive practice demands we examine the political architecture that maintains power and control over people and environment instead of protecting people and environment.  In the previous administration, the EPA asked for social work input on pending regulations. The current administration calls for less regulation and elimination of the agency that is charged with protecting the environment. Challenging the political structure to further progressive environmental causes is necessary.  The foundational core of the Green Party, popular in Europe, and increasingly so in the US, is environmental justice.

Work across boundaries and in multiples spaces

Expanding our usual scope of practice to educate, mobilize, and support community activism is at the core of this theme. Developing partnerships and coalitions demonstrates work across boundaries. Coalitions with public health organizations address toxic environments. Dual degrees such as the MSW/MPH exemplify such a coalition. The American Public Health Association has earmarked 2017 the Year of Climate Change and Health. Workshops have been hosted monthly to illustrate how public health professionals can help build resilience for the traumas and toxic stresses of climate change.

Social Work needs to have a presence at such workshops and establish similar priorities. An example occurred when members of the International Federation of Social Workers organized a workshop at the UN Headquarters in New York. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the Agenda 2030 of the United Nations. This workshop aimed to highlight social work’s role for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals on the local, subnational, national and international level.

Work with communities: This type of work is our profession’s biggest opportunity in the ecosocial work movement. Think Flint, Michigan where social workers were involved in going door to door, helping to mobilize groups to demand safe water. Social workers can identify food deserts and participate in, or organize food co-operatives, community supported agriculture and community gardens. The plight of migrant workers remains dire, particularly if undocumented. Studies have shown a significantly shorter lifespan among migrant workers due to pesticide exposure.

Family intervention, support groups, managing an environmental non-profit, providing education at the agency and community level are all ways in which social workers can use their skills. Rural communities affected by fracking or mountain-topping and the resultant loss of jobs, land, and health consequences beg for social work intervention. With the recent hurricanes and evacuation orders came reports of immigrants identified with DACA who resisted going to shelters for fear of being deported. Social work advocacy was needed to provide safety for such vulnerable populations.

Work with individuals: Most social workers provide service at this level. Borrowing from the afore-mentioned suggestions, micro interventions need to assess the environment in the person. How does the environment influence the presenting problem? Are there developmental residuals, is access to healthy nutrition an issue? What environmental barriers exist?  Is there a healthcare inequity?  Does the natural environment provide an opportunity for restorative or spiritual or transcendent experiences? Does it hinder or enhance our quality of life?

Identify the contextual environmental influences that your client may be experiencing. We are all aware of barriers to access, like lack of transportation that clients experience. But do we assess the pollution-laden community in which the client lives?

Of the three levels of social work intervention, micro, mezzo, and macro, several ways in which social workers can make an impact on environmental injustice have been identified.  It is imperative that social workers meet the grand challenge to create a social response to a changing environment. As global citizens, we have no choice.

For more information and resources please refer to my website:  https://sites.temple.edu/dewane/.

3 Reasons to Add Meatless Mondays

Vegan Pizza

Going vegetarian or vegan can be a daunting task, but there’s no reason to jump in head first! Meatless Mondays (or Wednesdays or Saturdays) can change the world, and its great for the environment, your health, and the animals!

Environment

You might be surprised by how much water it takes for the food to get to your plate.  The food we eat makes up about 80% of America’s total water footprint. Virtual water is what makes up this water footprint.  Virtual water is the amount of water that is embedded in products needed for its production, so this includes the water used in cleaning and transporting for example.  Pound for pound, meat has a higher water footprint than vegetables, grains or beans. For instance, a single pound of beef takes, on average, 1,847 gallons of water. It adds up around the world to a range of 7-305 pounds per person per year.

Assuming everyone eats equal amounts of meat each day, adding Meatless Monday will bring that number down to 6-262 pounds per person per year (divide by 7 and then multiply by 6) and that’s a big difference!  Beyond water footprint, let’s talk about carbon footprint!  Beef produces 13 times the emissions of vegetable protein (beans, lentils, tofu, etc.)  Once again that’s a big difference!  This is very simplified and does not consider all the pollution that comes from animal agriculture!

Health

Pant-based meals, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, legumes and nuts, is rich in fiber, vitamins and other nutrients. A National Cancer Institute study of 500,000 people found that those who ate the most red meat daily were 30 percent more likely to die of any cause during a 10-year period than were those who ate the least amount of red meat. Other processed meats also increased the risk plenty, but the people who ate the least meat were least likely to die in the 10-year period.

Vegans and vegetarians do get enough protein no matter what the stereotypes say. Make sure you eat enough calories and you are sure to get enough protein.  If you eat the same amount of vegetables as you would meat, that’s not going to work!  Most meat-free food is less calorie dense than meat so keep that in mind.  Don’t forget variety and you shouldn’t have a problem with protein, iron, vitamins, or anything else you might be worried about!

Animals

This is the reason most people suspect when you say you’re eating less meat or going vegetarian.  After all, modern agriculture commonly keeps animals in overcrowded stalls, cages, crates, or sheds where they are often unable to turn around or take even a single step in their entire lives.  Deprived of care, exercise, sunlight, and grass, the animals suffer tremendously before even coming to the slaughterhouse.  It is important to remember that the animals are living, breathing, thinking, and feeling beings.  The meat industry kills more than 25 billion animals each year.

In modern factory farms, animals are routinely injected with hormones and stimulants to make them grow bigger and faster.  Some of these injections have been proven to cause cancer and other diseases.  Feedlots are crowded, filthy, stinking places with open sewers and choking air. The animals would not survive in the filthy and crowded conditions without the unnatural amount of antibiotics used.  At some farms, cattle are fed dead ground up cows.

What now?

Add some meatless meals to your diet! And you don’t have to do it on a Monday, but Meatless Wednesdays just doesn’t sound as good.  Do what works best for you!

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Nature

Sometimes it is hard to continuously find motivation to reach your goals to conserve nature and work to help the environment.  Second thoughts may come up such as…Is it really worth carrying around all these reusable bags? or Can’t I just buy a plastic water bottle when I get to the gym? and even A Big-Mac sounds good right about now! 

Although everyone’s second thoughts are different, we all have them. And even if you haven’t asked yourself similar questions, I’m sure someone else has.

What can you do about this?

When you are hearing these thoughts, it is hard to snap out of it.  The only sure way to get back to where you want (and need) to be is to venture into nature!  Petting a few animals may remind you why you choose a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.  Swimming in a lake and seeing all the fish and animals could also remind you why you don’t use plastic.  Those animals don’t deserve to eat the plastic or have it stuck around their necks!  Seeing beautiful trees and greenery is a reminder that you don’t want to cause any harm to our dear Earth!

Another Example of nature’s inspiration:

 

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Black bear at the animal sanctuary on Grandfather Mountain

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina

5 ways to incorporate nature into your everyday life

1. Open the windows

Whether you’re cooking dinner or slaving over your computer at work, fresh sunlight from open blinds or fresh air from an open window can do wonders!

2. Have a plant

Taking care of a plant is a great way to see nature every day. You are actively caring for it, which creates a lot of motivation! To keep the plant alive and healthy, a routine must be established which leads to it being an everyday part of your life.

3. Add a pet to your family

It does not matter if you decide on the typical dog or take the easier way and get a fish or spring for a horse, each will provide you with a source of joy. Even more so than a plant, animals provide a routine and a sense of responsibility to animals and plants of the Earth.

4. Go for a walk

Some of the best ideas are thought of during a walk!  Why is that?  I think getting fresh air and your endorphins flowing keeps the human body and mind working the way it should.

5. Eat plants

It has been proven that a plant-based diet is best for the environment.  It can also help with your health and therefore your mind as well.  Jumping head first into a plant-based diet can be daunting, which is why it is recommended to start with Meatless Mondays.

Start today

No matter how you personally choose to do it, I ask you to meditate on the beauty of our Earth and how you treat our home and all those who inhabit it.

Environmental Justice for Indigenous Populations

Climate change has an inordinate effect on vulnerable populations.  The EPA has published multiple fact sheets outlining the effects of climate change on various vulnerable populations, all of which are populations that social workers encounter.

As just one example the health of indigenous peoples are affected by climate conditions because their culture relies on their local environment and natural resources for food, cultural practices, and income. Many live in isolated or low income communities such as rural areas with limited access to public services and healthcare, or they live in places most affected by climate change like communities along the coasts. The people of several Alaskan tribal villages are facing relocation due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion.

The EPA cites examples of food, water, air, land and infrastructure, and health risks to tribal populations. In the Upper Great Lakes Region, Ojibwe communities may be affected by the impacts of rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns on rice-growing conditions in lakes and rivers.

Indigenous people along the West and Gulf Coasts rely on fish and shellfish for food, livelihoods, and certain ceremonial or cultural practices. Higher sea surface temperatures increase the risk that certain fish and shellfish will become contaminated with mercury, harmful algal toxins, or naturally-occurring bacteria.

For Alaska Native communities, rising temperatures and permafrost thaw threaten traditional methods of safe food storage in ice houses, and increase risk of food contamination. Climate change may also affect the abundance and nutritional quality of local Alaskan berries that are an important source of traditional diets.

A prime example of environmental injustice is that American Indian/Alaska Native infants are more likely to be hospitalized with diarrhea than other infants in the U.S.  Many remote tribal households, primarily in western Alaska Native Villages and the Navajo Nation, do not have adequate drinking water or wastewater treatment infrastructure, increasing the risk of water-borne diseases like diarrhea.

Current revival of the Dakota Pipeline construction may pollute the water supply of several indigenous tribal communities. In addition, projected increases in large wildfires, as a result of changing weather patterns, threaten air quality for tribes in Alaska and the western United States.

Although the health and welfare of children, elders, indigenous peoples, and persons living in poverty are disproportionately affected by environmental negligence, we all will be struggling for survival if we don’t prioritize climate change and environmental collapse as the ultimate social justice issue.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) recently published five social justice priorities outlined in a new initiative for 2017 which are:

  • Voting rights
  • Criminal justice
  • Juvenile Justice
  • Immigration reform
  • Economic justice/Equality

Although each of the priorities are important, they mean nothing if environmental justice is not achieved.  Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy, if basic needs, in this case, air, water and sustainable resources, are not protected, other priorities become less exigent.

There is a small faction of our profession dedicated to ecologically conscious social work, but the profession has been slow to jump on the environmentalist band wagon, as exemplified by NASW’s social justice priorities.  It’s urgently time to reconsider. If you are interested in the nexus of social work and environmentalism, check out the Facebook page Ecologically Conscious Social Workers. Learn more about the effect of climate damage on the populations you serve.

The health impact of environmental crises varies with age, life stage and location. And consider the environment as one of the filters you use to assess the person or situation you are facing.  Yes, we know all about person-in-environment…but let’s also focus on the environment-in-person!

Meeting the Middle: Why a Balanced Message Promotes Sustainability

earthday_soil

Its been 10 years since “An Inconvenient Truth,” the Al Gore film, first hit the big screen. Do yourself a favor; go back and rewatch it.

When it first hit theaters, I took my entire company to see it — a team of scientists and engineers working to solve problems with social and environmental impact. I was surprised when one of my engineers turned to me before the showing and asked, “Do you really believe in this climate change stuff?” By the time the showing was over, however, he was saying, “I don’t know why I ever doubted it.”

That’s the power of messaging. By driving home a well-researched message that was hard to refute, the film transformed conversations about climate change and effectively jump-started the sustainability movement we know today. It did so by moving the opinion of the masses rather than rallying the extremes.

Unfortunately, the majority of documentaries and campaigns that have come in the 10 years since have failed to sway the masses in the same way that this landmark film did.

Where have these campaigns gone wrong? By focusing on the most extreme — and most refutable — studies, important environmental issues are being kept on the fringe, never making the impact they truly deserve.

A Black-and-White Message in a Sea of Gray

Not all environmental problems have a clear-cut solution. Even for the most environmentally conscious consumer, it can be difficult to sort out the best approach to sustainable living.

As such, many environmental lobbies try to simplify the equation by taking a more extreme position — even if that position doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny.

Look at “Cowspiracy,” a recent documentary outlining the massive impact of industrial animal agriculture on the environment. With a wide-angle view, the message is spot-on — the meat and dairy industries carry a massive carbon footprint. But the documentarian continually cites one study stating that the byproducts of animal agriculture are responsible for 51 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions — a figure that isn’t corroborated by any other scientific study.

As a result, when people discuss the documentary, they tend to focus less on the issue and more on the data used to back it up. Environmental “haters” are quick to discard the entire premise because the data was cherry-picked to make an extreme argument. An otherwise important message is clouded by the veracity of a single statement. The result is rallying the fringe rather than imparting change by moving the masses.

The anti-GMO movement uses some of the same tactics. Too often, these campaigns tout the extremes — single, oft-refuted studies — rather than the wealth of data showing the safety and benefits of genetically modified foods.

Now, I’m not arguing that use of genetic modifications has always resulted in absolutely beneficial results. But to ignore the positives that have occurred is just as ignorant. Golden rice, for example, is a genetically modified alternative in the Philippines that contains important nutrients — ones that populations in Asia and Africa desperately need.

The GMO labeling effort could gain more support if the information given to the public about genetic modification wasn’t so one-sided and extreme. By painting all GMO foods with the same large brush, many life-saving crops are cast in a negative light — tainting the message behind the effort.

The setting aside of consensus isn’t a strictly partisan problem, either. Fringe environmentalists may tout far-fetched statistics, but the anti-vaccination movement has been guilty of the same. After falsely claiming a link between vaccinations and autism, the anti-vaxxer movement opened up the world to dangerous illnesses like measles or whooping cough that had once been nearly wiped off the map.

The most radical study will only convince the most radical minds, and the most conservative statistic will only satisfy the most conservative viewpoint. Undecideds are left untouched.

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

The ultimate goal of any campaign shouldn’t be a shocking headline — it should be a truly inclusive look at the issue.

This means looking beyond the catchiest, most clickable statistic and relying on the bulk of literature to drive home a message. Which message is better: saying that global temperatures will rise four degrees or saying that they will rise two degrees, with some studies suggesting they could rise as high as four? The latter may be more nuanced, but it’s also harder to refute, and the potential damage is just as significant.

Don’t set aside sound science for sound bites. It’s not about convincing those on the edges of the issue — it’s about swaying those in the middle. That’s what creates a true impact.

As long as environmental issues are viewed as fringe, they will never succeed. However, by taking a balanced and nuanced approach, campaigns can begin to sway the minds of the masses and cultivate real change.

What is Green Social Work?

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The Urban Renaissance Center of Civic Park Neighborhood in Flint is a new field placement area for social work students this Fall.

Whenever something is called ‘green’ many of us tend toward skepticism. Let’s be real, when something touts itself as environmentally friendly, so often it’s just trying to hide a toxic underbelly.

So, green social work … is it just hype?

Hardly. It’s the real deal. It’s a reframing of how we talk about social issues, the planet, and the intersection between the two. It’s as green as they come.

In 2010 the Council on Social Work Education declared sustainability the number one social justice issue of the new century. Since then, the area of green social work has evolved and come into its own.

Green social work is a branch of social work that deals with the impact of the faltering environmental stability upon human populations. It is essentially a broadening of the definition of environment, sociologically speaking, from referring exclusively to someone’s immediate surroundings to referring to the planet that we all share.

After the CSWEs 2010 announcement, it became quite clear that social workers globally were eager to enter a realistic conversation about how climate change affects people, impoverished groups in particular, and that they were ready to take action.

There was no more denying that the extreme flooding, hurricane damage, or broken levees of the age impacted people beyond reason.

Annie Muldoon, MSW, of Carleton University has very poignant reasoning behind her belief in the need for green social work: “Attempts to improve social conditions may be lost,” she said, “if society itself lacks clear air, drinkable water, and adequate food.”

This newfound awareness in the social work field was met with an air of embarrassment. Experts began acknowledging that social work had always had an ambivalent understanding of its relationship to the natural world. And that while their work had always been based upon a “person-in-environment” principle, it had long neglected the “environment-in-person” aspect. There was a certain level of rose-tinted metaphor to the whole thing: the flaws of the field of social work were represented within the flaws of the human condition. In short, we all waited too long to see the inevitable truth about global warming and it was our collective responsibility to do something about it, fast. 

Soon the conversation shifted from revelation to action.

In the Aftermath

Arguably the most profound impact of the new green edge to the field of social work comes in the form of professionals on the ground in the aftermath of a natural disaster. They flood to the South after devastating hurricanes; they establish shelters for people who are forced to evacuate their homes; they provide aid plain and simple. Social workers fill the need for emergency management that focuses on people instead of their insurance policies.

According to Case Western Reserve University, another benefit of having social workers on the ground during the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster is that they are able to address poverty and other structural inequalities at the same time as they’re working to enhance the quality of life of the residents. A social worker stationed in a region prone to hurricanes, for example, will build relationships with local families and be better equipped to cater to their particular needs – like helping the parents of a child with disabilities prepare for the hurricane before it hits. The simple fact of the social workers’ proximity to affected peoples and issues makes them better advocates.

The best part is that all of this is just a matter of course. If social workers place themselves at the scene to help, their training just kicks in.

Environmental Justice

Another beneficial outcome of the advent of green social work is Environmental Justice.

It is defined by the EPA asthe fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

Once social workers started examining the real-world participation and understanding of environmental programs in their communities, it became clear that many barriers still exist.

Dawn Philip and Michael Reisch outline some of these barriers in “Rethinking Social Work‘s Interpretation of ‘Environmental Justice’: From Local to Global.” The issues range from not having the resources to access vital health and environmental data to not being able to afford the technical supplies that help social leaders communicate environmental concerns to the community.

Before the introduction and focus of green social work, these issues would just get lumped into the broad category of general organizational dysfunction. It’s quite clear though that health concerns of this magnitude are something entirely different. Think Flint, Michigan.

Environmental Refugees

In this era of environmental catastrophes that knock out entire regions, entirely new social issues have become a reality. For example, the 1951 Geneva Convention defined “refugees” as people who are outside their home-state due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group. But, as noted by Melahat Demirbiek in his paper “Environment, Environmental Refugees and Green Social Work,” high-level environmental degradation – aka sea level rise, flood, drought, desertification, and deforestation – has created another kind of refugee. The environmental refugee.

There is no proper technical classification to aid this sort of person.

While political refugees are entitled to food and shelter, environmental refugees are not yet recognized by international law. It is the job of green social work to shed light on this problem and support the people caught in its crosshairs.

All in all, green social work is a movement that has been a long time coming. And I hate to say it, but we were a little late to the game. It’s time to be of help however we can. Someone needs to empower the communities most affected by climate change – because these environmental disasters are happening whether we’re ready for them or not – and social workers are some of the best equipped to do so.

Want more? Read Lena Dominelli’s book Green Social Work: From Environmental Crises to Environmental Justice.

Have you seen green social work in action firsthand? Please, share it in the comments!

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