Climate change, natural disasters affect well-being

2016 US Natural Disasters, NOAA map

As of September, there have been 12 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States. This represents the second-highest total number of events surpassing the 11 events observed in 2012. The record number of events in one year (since 1980) is 16, as observed in 2011. Social workers are working on a Grand Challenge to create social responses to a changing environment. They say climate change and disaster events like these take a toll on human well-being, especially on those in marginalized communities. (Infographic source: NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information.)

When Samantha Teixeira was at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work earning her MSW and then her Ph.D., she and a young black man walked up to a high school where the entry door was locked.

“He rang the bell, and they wouldn’t let him in,” she said. “He looked at me and shook his head. ‘They’re not going to let me in,’ he said. ‘You ring it.’ I rang the bell, and a white woman walked up and let us in.”

That was just one memory from when Teixeira, now assistant professor of social work at the Boston College School of Social Work, worked with youths participating in the city’s Homewood neighborhood improvement and cleanup project named Junior Green Corps.

“Imagine being treated that poorly,” she said. “The biggest thing I learned from them is I got a glimpse of what it means to belong to a marginalized group and be stigmatized. When they said where they’re from—Homewood—they were stigmatized.”

“I was working with (these young people) for several years, and to see them shake off those assumptions and get to work, it was just stunning. To watch how they persevered in the face of that was a privilege. It was very powerful for me.”

A lot of social workers think of clinical and macro work as being separate, Teixeira said, but issues affect casework.

Samantha Teixeira

“If you work with a client one-on-one, then send them out into an unclean environment, there’s an effect,” she said. “Research over and over supports the fact that neighborhoods matter for everyone, particularly for young people. It affects physical health and mental health.”

Teixeira had been working with child welfare clients after earning her bachelor’s, and “kept observing that all the cases were from the same neighborhoods with the same types of housing where there were also poverty and public health issues.”

When beginning her master’s work, Teixeira focused on macro social work.

“I understood the things I was seeing fell under the umbrella of social justice issues,” she said.

From the neighborhood level, like the Junior Green Corps project, to larger national or global levels, social workers play a role in helping develop sustainable communities and empowering people and their communities to help address their needs, said Lawrence Palinkas, a co-lead for one of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work: “Create social responses to a changing environment.”

The challenge states “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 assts.”

Palinkas focuses on climate change issues at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he is the Albert G. and Frances Loman Feldman professor of social policy and health and is chairman of the department of children, youth and families.

Addressing these issues is important because “it is a global phenomenon that has local and physical impacts,” he said.

Lawrence Palinkas

“A number of people don’t even believe in the occurrence of change in climate, but the fact is, even in the U.S. no matter where you live, those impacts manifest in various ways: California drought and other more frequently occurring natural disasters,” Palinkas said. “Most importantly, and why it’s seen as a social work grand challenge, is because it is a social justice issue.”

“It can impact communities that are vulnerable for other reasons, like living in poverty. Not only does it affect everyone in the world, but it affects the communities that social workers serve.”

He said the climate change group is working on a position paper that addresses issues including disaster preparedness and response and developing new evidence-based treatments.

“The evidence is clear that the number and frequency of natural disasters has increased dramatically in the last decade,” Palinkas said. “Not only are there more, they are more severe and have a greater loss of life and economic costs, requiring a more improved response.”

That can include training first responders in psychological first aid, he said.

“We also need to be prepared to address social issues, like when there are a number of refugees who are forced to relocate because of environmental issues,” Palinkas said.

Urban growth can exacerbate the problems caused by climate changes because “populations in marginalized living conditions are in key sites for vulnerability,” said Susan P. Kemp, the Charles O. Cressey Endowed Professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work in Seattle.

Kemp, who focuses on urban development issues, directs the Ph.D. program in social welfare and is co-lead on the grand challenge.

“Think about all the coastal cities challenged by sea level rises,” she said. “Think about (Hurricane) Katrina and New Orleans. There are areas around the Mississippi River that are losing acres per day. Cities are a critical piece of the puzzle.”

“We can’t leave out Flint (Michigan) and its water problems, Chicago heat waves where we lost a lot of people—mainly people of color. You can tick off a number of places where urban development and climate change go hand in hand.”

Kemp said the challenge team, which includes Teixeira, assistant professor of social work at the Boston College School of Social Work, and Lisa Reyes Mason, assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Social Work, is working on a position paper.

“We’re getting a lot of momentum and international interest,” she said.

Kemp attended the 6th International Disaster and Risk Conference in Davos, Switzerland, Aug. 28 to Sept. 1, where she was a panelist in a session titled “Navigating Urban Resilience—a Social-Ecological Approach.” She also presented a paper explaining the grand challenge and the group’s core strategies.

Kemp said her group is currently mapping out a potential policy agenda and looking at three things that need to be accomplished:

  • Advance a role for social workers while emphasizing that this is a major issue
  • Put equity into the argument that urbanization contains risks
  • Make sure the communities involved become engaged

She said coupling urban development and climate change issues are a natural fit because of one commonality: Many disadvantaged people live where there are the least number of services, the least amount of protective infrastructure, and it’s often low-lying ground with the greatest potential for flooding.

Susan Kemp

“But there are other infrastructures like chemical plants, polluting industries and waste dumps,” Kemp said. “There are environments that have the potential for cascading effects, and protective factors are not as available. These make communities more vulnerable as environmental effects take place. We’ve knit together social and environmental policy because they’re related.”

Mason, who directs the Environment and Social Development initiative at the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis, went to the Philippines to research and find solutions to water shortage problems, what resources matter most in helping people get water and what the resources are for water storage.

“The Philippines is a country that has experienced natural disaster after disaster after disaster,” she said. “The country has a lot of extremes. There’s a lot of poverty, a lot of insecurity there.”

Mason said the water insecurity problem has grown because of climate change: The dry season is drier longer, and many people either don’t have water-line access or they cannot afford it.

“Here, we don’t think about how to get water and store it,” she said. “There, getting and storing water for drinking, cooking and bathing is a responsibility that mainly falls to women. And they’re also budget managers.”

That puts them in the position of figuring out if they can put household money toward water or food or for their children’s schooling, because schools there are not free, Mason said.

“Fifteen percent of families in the study spend more than 10 percent of their income on water,” she said. “International standards recommend no more than 3 percent of income should go toward water.”

Afterward, Mason said, the challenge was “how to move this research into some kind of change, how to put ideas you’ve had, findings, information, data into practice.”

One of the recommendations was encouraging the water utilities to try different types of installment plans that break down payments so they’re more affordable.

Lisa Mason

“I think what’s required is to have really good partnerships,” Mason said. “Any kind of work in this area, you value partnerships — NGOs — both public sector and private sector; nonprofit organizations; other academics.”

Teixeira’s work with Pittsburgh youths drew the city in as a partner. The young people got a proclamation from the mayor, and the program received supporting grants, she said.

Mason’s current project is in its beginning stage and includes partnering with engineers and geographers. And there is an EPA grant to encourage young people to get engaged.

“We’re looking at urban flooding and green infrastructure as a way to lower risk,” she said. “I’m eager to collaborate with social scientists because infrastructure is part of the solution.”

Palinkas said because social workers by virtue of the nature of the profession and their mission are already addressing the needs of vulnerable populations, they are “ideally situated” to address this grand challenge.

“Being in an applied science, social workers are trained to act as both champions and change agents,” he said. “Their unique skill set allows them to bring together a variety of sources to address these problems—agriculture experts, climate experts. Their work on the ground or in the trenches makes them uniquely suited to address these efforts.”

In the past, Palinkas noted, Congress has shown a willingness to work with social workers — to listen, collaborate and compromise.

Now, he said, environmental issues like rising sea levels on the East Coast “are not going to disappear just because of a change in administration. These are going to require a response.”

Social workers should be prepared in case the government reaches out for help, Palinkas said.

“Hope is more than a political slogan,” he said. “It’s a human need. It’s hope for survival. We spend our working lives promoting that.”

Mason said she was working on a project involving a public housing area in South Knoxville named Montgomery Village that included working with engineers and geographers who installed precipitation and temperature monitors and research participants who interviewed residents, asking them about poverty, drugs and crime.

“One resident who was there said, ‘I’m so glad you’re doing this. We’re not just drugs and crime. Nobody’s ever asked us about poverty. Because we’re that, too.’” Mason said. “It’s important to talk to people and ask how environmental issues affect them because that’s part of peoples’ lives, too. That’s the point of bringing peoples’ voices to the table.”


Climate Change

Climate changes are under way now in the United States and across the world, and they are affecting ecosystems and human communities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states in an impact paper and teaching tool posted online in December.

“Multiple sectors of our society, spanning across regional boundaries, are being affected,” it states. “Already impacted are things that we depend upon and value: water, energy, transportation, wildlife, agriculture, ecosystems and human health.” Water resources already are “of critical concern” in some regions, NOAA states. Drought is affecting many in the West, heavy downpours have “substantially increased in the Midwest and Northeast,” and “in many regions, floods and water quality problems are likely to become worse because of climate change.” Changes like higher temperatures, water stress, diseases and weather extremes not only create “significant challenges for the farmers and ranchers who put food on our tables, human health is vulnerable to climate change,” NOAA states. Environmental changes are expected to create more heat stress and increase waterborne diseases, poor air quality, extreme weather events and diseases that are transmitted by insects and rodents, it states.


The U.S. Census Bureau reported in March 2012 that the population within the nation’s 486 urbanized areas grew by 14.3 percent from 2000 to 2010, and urban areas now account for 80.7 percent of the U.S. population, up from 79.0 percent in 2000. Although the rural population grew by a modest amount from 2000 to 2010, it continued to decline as a percentage of the national population. A July 2014 report by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division at the United Nations, titled World Urbanization Prospects, states that 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050. The urban population of the world has grown rapidly from 746 million in 1950 to 3.9 billion in 2014. It is expected to surpass six billion by 2045.