Importance of Climate Change

One may ask how does a social worker become curious about such a scientifically based issue such as climate change? My own curiosity stemmed from a “vacation,” my parents took me on at a young age of 11. Having a mother who was a documentary filmmaker, and a father who was a social worker, the location of our vacation was chosen to be in Churchill, Manitoba on the Hudson Bay near the Arctic Circle, which was a surprising melding of my parent’s curiosity. After four days of train rides through rural wooded areas that turned to Tundra, we finally reached a small town called “Churchill.” Soon after we arrived, my mother learned of a local craftswoman named Rose who she befriended. Rose was an Inuit elder who had a young granddaughter my age that wanted to learn about my life in America. Over the course of our vacation, we observed their traditional ways and let them show us their community. Being 11 years old, there was one story that Rose and her granddaughter told that sparked my questioning. They spoke of polar bears that had become vicious, dangerous, and desperately hungry in the town of Churchill due to the shorter winters and longer summers. Why would seasons have anything to do with a polar bears behavior? Rose explained that over the last 10 years, their climate was changing and the ice that the polar bears walk on to hunt for meat in the bay was not freezing fast enough or staying frozen long enough. This was my first experience of what my father described to me as “global warming.” I asked Rose if I could see a polar bear in Churchill, she said, “of course!” She took me to the town dump, where four polar bears were rummaging around for any scrap of food they could find. As an empathetic child, who had been taught from a young age to hold myself with a fair level of emotional intelligence, I began to question what this meant on a much larger scale. My heart had never pounded harder, than when I saw the white polar bears full of brown hues of garbage on their fur. The Inuit people struggle today, as one of the most climate vulnerable populations on earth, but we all feel the effects of these eco-energy phenomena hitting us. As a social worker, my dad taught me I could do anything, effect change, and heal living things on individual or systematic scales. I told myself after that trip, at the age of 11, that I would not let the rest of the planet turn out like those polar bears in the dump. Unfortunately, but also fortunately, I chose the largest global social issue facing us today. This paper will discuss the latent effects of climate change and ways in which we can address this issue as social workers.

Understanding the foundational principles that create the term, “climate change,” is the first step in establishing a need for the social work profession to address this growing social and environmental issue today. The United Nations (2014) most recent report synthesized the cause and forecast of climate change, which can be used as a basis for a foundational understanding of the issue. Climate change is a term referencing changes in weather events, rising sea levels, global temperatures warming over time, and a magnitude of various species of animals becoming extinct. Many scientists agree that climate change is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions that have increased since the industrial era, and have been driven by population growth (United Nations, 2014). If greenhouse gas emissions and carbon levels continue to rise, deleterious outcomes such as weather events, species decline, ocean acidification, global warming, as well as severe droughts are expected (United Nations, 2014).

Populations Effected By Climate Change

Climate reflects these multi-dimensional factors that affect our entire planets natural processes (United Nations, 2014). Overall, evidence and literature demonstrates that human activities must be changed or the impact on earth, and its atmosphere, will influence the complex variable conditions that all life forms depend on (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). For purposes of organization and clarity, it is hard to pinpoint which populations are not effected by climate change in some way, but it is easy to examine those who are impacted the most by climate change. By looking at North American case studies, our discussion will focus on how climate change has impacted vulnerable populations that are low-income and spiritually rooted in living off of their land.

Within sociological and anthropological research, scholars have referred to populations that are leaving their original locations due to climate change, as “climate migration” (Faist & Shade, 2013, p. 5). Climate migration refers to a more future oriented and proactive approach for some populations. This means certain populations were aware of the effects of climate change, primarily Indigenous populations before they became increasingly worse, and decided to migrate. Today, scholars are starting to refer to people who are active in climate migration as “climate refugees” (Faist & Shade, 2013). This change in terminology came about in the last 10 years as the relationship of vulnerable populations to climate change became more reactive as environmental conditions worsened (Faist & Shade, 2013). Social workers today are used to thinking of refugees as human beings that are escaping war-torn countries. However, the concept of fleeing can be applied to climate as well.

Climate refugee status has not yet been fully defined in the sense that researchers are trying to assess and evaluate the factors that must be present for an individual to fall under this specific label and category. A recent article on Inuit health explored the relationships between climate variability, adaptive responses, migration, and demographics in the arctic regions of North America (Ford, Willox, Chatwood, Furgal, Harper, Mauro, Pearce, 2014). This article helped clarify the vulnerability of Inuit people to extreme weather events that are induced by climate change due to poverty and inequality (Ford et, al. 2014). Climate vulnerability was measured by the factors that make the Inuit population more susceptible to harm by enhancing sensitivity to health impacts or by constraints of adaptation to climate change (Ford et, al. 2014). The article revealed that climate vulnerability had reached a historical point for specific under-represented populations, and began affecting their foundational needs of food, shelter, and water, for survival (Ford, 2014).

The effects of climate change on human beings labeled “climate refugees,” could be considered more like a wave of phenomenon affecting the entire human species, but starting with the most climate-vulnerable populations in arctic regions. For someone to have the status of “climate refugee,” their human rights and human needs for survival should be at a point that they must migrate to a different, and less climate-vulnerable location in order to stay alive and/or function (Ford, 2014). What has not yet been identified, is the lengths at which climate vulnerable populations will adapt to the conditions of climate change in order to stay on their land instead of migrate to other areas (Monastersky, 2009).

Experiences at the ground level suggest that the longer climate vulnerable populations stay where they are, the more internal and external stressors they will have to endure (Monastersky, 2009). The focus of this discussion for purposes of organization, clarity, and relevance will look deeper into the field of social work in relation to environment in order to show the necessity for social workers to address climate change.

Significance of Climate Change To Social Work – Theory

The field of social work has several prevalent lenses, approaches, and theories that are discussed in the literature pertaining to topics of environment. Although this is the case, an exploration of what is being applied within social work literature will allow for a discussion of the gaps in research and application for social work practice in the area of climate change. For example, social work scholars exploring environmental ethics argue that environmental issues and climate change deleteriously impact the personal health and well being of vulnerable and disadvantaged populations disproportionately (Coates & Gray, 2011). What is first key to understanding the need for social work to address climate change issues, is exploring the relationship between environmental social work and macro themes of social welfare.

Theoretical frameworks for “environmental social work,” “eco-social work,” or “green social work” are fairly recent developments that started in the 1980’s and 1990’s (Coates & Gray, 2011). Many scholars at that time started trying to theoretically expand the social work perspective of person-in-environment to include more than just the social environment (Zapf, 2009). Eco-social work brought about theories that started using the term, “sustainable” in arguing for the development of social and environmental progress for generations to come. Social workers were expected to have an awareness of the interconnectedness of all living things equating to well being within these theoretical frameworks (Zapf, 2009). Scholarly influences that have also informed the burgeoning field of environmental social work such as deep-ecology, social constructionism, and eco-feminism, place importance on social work’s inclusion of all living things into a synergistic framework of cultural competence and the promotion of well-being for all life forms (Coates & Gray, 2011).

Deep Ecology explores the biological equalitarianism of all living things, how interconnectedness is a systems and social change agent for ecological sustainability (Coates & Gray, 2011).  Eco-Feminism influenced eco-social work by tying social justice movements of the 60’s and 70’s to the contextualization of the environments in which movement itself happens (Gray & Coates, 2012). Social Constructionism theories influence eco-social work by showing the link between culture and environment (Gray & Coates, 2012). The importance placed on environment and sustainability is seen through a cultural lens that influences how humans behave in their environment, according to social constructionists (Gray & Coates, 2012). These foundational theoretical approaches have all influenced the ways in which social workers and scholars will address environmental issues today. It is clear from these theoretical descriptions that how social workers value and perceive the human relationship to all living things will predict future actions within the social work field for both study and practice.

The American Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics, was amended in 2001, to include social development and environmental management as a professional interest of social welfare. However, only 11% of AASW members voted for ecological sustainability to be a top 10-policy issue (AASW, 2002). As climate change has been increasingly shown to negatively affect the health many indigenous populations, 11% is surprisingly low. Although the AASW Code of Ethics now includes new language that is inclusive of climate change advocacy in study and practice, there is need for additional research to legitimize the practice and study of climate change advocacy and environmental advocacy in the field of social welfare (McKinnon & Sturt, 2008). Legislation at all levels of agencies and government structures could be addressing the need for the link between environmental and social welfare, and need change-agents to bring these issues to the table even more.

Significance of Climate Change to Macro Social Work

An exploration of Macro social work in the area of social welfare and climate change will allow for an understanding of what the future could hold in the field. Environmental behavior must be re-trained in many climate vulnerable communities, and this means empowering people who are most directly affected by the systematic inability to address their suffering at the expense of climate change. (Gifford, 2011) suggests interventions with individuals who are not directly affected by climate change to include empathic exercises with natural environments or creatures, in order to curb trends of environmental numbness. Raising collective climate consciousness in order to induce reflexive social responses for future impacts of climate change is one suggested community and macro response within the literature (Davidson, 2012). Many communities are now divesting in fossil fuels and investing in alternative forms of energy as a way to do this. Although this is the case, reflexive social responses should also be seen in the protection of natural resources. Climate change is not one phenomenon; it is a multitude of phenomenon’s adding to one over-arching problem. Macro interventions thus far address social welfare factors of raising awareness and grass roots social justice campaigns that hope to preserve resources.

Examples of reflexive climate change responses at a macro level could be found in the Honor the Earth campaign, which fought against major United States oil pipelines to run through tribal lands; for the protection of essential natural resources such as farm land, wild rice, and fresh water (Anishinaabe News, 2014). The global indigenous uprisings in response to climate change and land rights have shown the need for social workers to be aware of the personal and systematic needs of populations effected by climate change (First Peoples Worldwide, 2013). Another example of social justice initiatives for North America is the Idle No More Campaign that fought against the Alberta-Canada Tar-Sand mining projects in protection of indigenous lands and resources (Idle No More, 2015). The president of the United States listened to these groups and vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline bill that many were fighting against. These social justice campaigns are not only political, they are cultural in the sense that indigenous populations hold the land and treaty rights to fight against legislation that does not honor the balance of the earths ecology (Anishinaabe News, 2014). Social welfare practices of social workers not only rely on the preservation of these natural resources for the future of all of humanity, but specifically for the future of American Indians.

Significance of Climate Change to Micro Social Work

What has become increasingly apparent is that climate change and environmental theories are not only a part of social welfare within macro social work practice, they also are included in micro practice implications as well. The field of clinical social work values cultural competence as one of the most important and rooted professional values, yet fails to include any models or interventions that directly explore the link between culture, climate change, land-based spirituality, and mental health. Within social constructivist theory, cultures that see the environment as their own source of emotional and physical stability are directly affected by climate change in ways that can inhibit a majority or all of their human functioning (Lysack, 2011). Human functioning is what clinical social workers are asked to assess, evaluate, and document throughout their time with a particular client. In addition, eco-social work literature suggests that social workers should maintain a moral fiber rooted in cultural competence that address the environmental needs of indigenous populations in order to repair relationships that were lost to historical trauma and genocide (Lysack, 2011).

Gaps in social work literature and research are abundant in the realm of providing culturally competent micro practice social work / mental health services to populations suffering from climate change, who are also spiritually rooted to the land they may or may not have to migrate from (Diver & Reggie, 2014). Recently, Minnesota tribal officials have compared these kinds of migrations to historically traumatic events that have happened to indigenous populations throughout history (Diver, & Reggie, 2014). Climate change may be the field of social work’s professional opportunity to address new forms of historical trauma in clinical settings and within structural systems.

Case examples of how climate change is effecting indigenous populations will provide ideas to explore for recommendations for the field of social work to address climate change. An exploratory case study located in Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Canada found that climate vulnerable populations reported that “changes in climate and environment increased family stress, enhanced the possibility of increased drug and alcohol usage, amplified previous traumas and mental health stressors, and were implicated in increased potential for suicide ideation (Willox, Haper, Ford, Edge, Landman, Houle, Blake, Wolfrey, 2010, p.255).” The initial findings indicate climate refugees who are resource-dependent may find climate change an additional mental health stressor (Willox, 2010). Climatic and environmental variability may potentially pose challenges for mental health and well being with the effects emerging globally through both direct and indirect impacts (Berry & Kjellstrom, 2010). This case study offers a look into the individual effects of climate change, and why social justice groups are asking for the preservation of resources (in the form of fossil fuel infrastructure protests), and an awareness of climate change by all members of society.

According to the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Interface between Psychology and Climate Change (Swim et al. 2010), these climate-change-related mental health impacts are anticipated to be large in impact and scope, and experienced first and most acutely by those who are marginalized populations, communities who rely most closely on the local ecosystems, and areas most susceptible to climatic variability (Berry & Kjellstrom, 2010). For climate refugees, there has been next to no research on how to treat mental health disorders that are founded in the stressors of climate change. In the exploratory case study from Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, “many participants indicated that more time on the land would increase mental health and well-being while simultaneously building resilience to the observed climatic changes (Willox et. al, 2010, p.264).” Providing climate refugees with a way to reconnect to land and ways of life that provide an intimate relationship to living things may help alleviate some of the psychological impacts of climate change.

Another rural case study near Victoria Australia, where health workers were dealing with severe drought conditions due to climate change, shows the impact on vulnerable populations during times of climate change weather events (Anderson, 2009). These health workers found that climate change weather conditions worsened pre-existing mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, impulsive behavior, suicide, and post-partum depression (Anderson, 2009). The health workers talked about the importance of mental health crisis counseling before, during, and after climate-induced trauma to be part of rural, state, and federal planning for climate change preparation (Anderson, 2009). Recently, the state of California declared that they are facing one of the most severe droughts on record. Although this is the case, FEMA does not have provisions for mental health counseling as part of disaster relief federal funding. This is an area that both macro and micro social workers could advocate for the need for services.

In addition to interventions for mental illness, prevention of climate change behavior for individuals is a key ingredient to healing. Social workers in the field must be aware of the fact that people’s decisions about energy use are made privately but usually influenced by a structural context such as income or regulations (Peeters, 2011). Any effort made by social workers to raise awareness about climate change should be paired with structural measures from government such as grants to enhance the energetic quality of houses of low-income families (Peeters, 2011). Health workers in Australia stressed the need for a community-driven approach to climate change preparedness (Anderson, 2009). The coupling of prevention and intervention at all levels of social work practice are applicable to the problem of climate change.



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