A Nursing Perspective on Climate Change

Headshot of Chatham University alumna in a striped blue shirt.

Jennifer Wasco

In honor of Nurse’s Week (May 6 - May 12), we asked Assistant Professor and Practice Experience Coordinator of the nursing programs, Jennifer Wasco, DNP, RN to discuss the impact climate change is having on healthcare and what nurses can do to help patients face a rapidly declining environment.

Climate change is real. We are seeing its impact on the health of patients right now. Across the nation, healthcare providers are observing spikes in asthma episodes and exacerbated respiratory diseases from poor air quality. We are also seeing an increase in the following conditions: heat-related illnesses like heat stroke, vector-borne illnesses such as Lyme Disease, challenges around food security, and psychological-health issues resulting from catastrophic weather events such as flooding or wildfires.  

The 2018 Report of the Lancet Countdown reconfirmed that our healthcare community recognizes climate change will be a contributing factor to negative impacts on population health in the coming years. Additionally, the lack of movement on low-carbon emissions as recommended by scientists will threaten healthcare systems’ ability to provide care and ultimately disrupt the public health infrastructure.  

Professional nursing organizations are recognizing the need to create educational roadmaps for their members so they are prepared to deal for the expected challenges with healthcare now and in the future. Nurses must educate vulnerable populations including children, elderly people, low-income communities and those suffering from chronic conditions that stem from climate change. Nurses, if properly trained, can advise patients on steps to mitigate risk and actions that can be taken to reduce the carbon footprint. Many of the issues related to climate change are human-induced. Using both education and dedication, we can demonstrate to our communities what can be done now, and how to prepare for the future. As one of the most trusted professions in the United States, nurses are ideal candidates to provide guidance in the midst of this environmental crisis, both to our patients and the global community.

As Chatham alumna and the founder of the environmentalist movement, Rachel Carson once said, “The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.” Her words should be considered an appropriate warning.

Jennifer J. Wasco, DNP, RN is an assistant professor and the practice experience coordinator for the nursing programs at Chatham University.  Her scholarly agenda is focused on climate change, its burden on human health and empowering nurses and other healthcare professionals to take a role in climate leadership.  She recently visited Capitol Hill to meet with Congressional leaders to educate them on climate change and human health.  She is an active member of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. She hopes to improve the health of the world’s people through education.