StoryCorps: People Share How Climate Change is Harming Health
In 2021, 10 pairs of friends, family, and loved ones across the United States met to record conversations about how their health and the health of their communities are being impacted by climate change.
We all want to live in safe, stable communities that empower us to live healthier lives. We want that for ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and the generations that follow.
But climate change is making life less predictable. Whether it’s a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, the spread of tropical diseases in Lowndes County, Ala., worsening asthma downwind from wildfires in California, or threats to how food is grown in Puerto Rico and Nebraska, climate change is disrupting our lives and making it harder to live our healthiest life.
While we all feel these harms, the burden isn’t even or fair. Some of us feel it sooner and more intensely, depending on where we live or work, our age or income, or our race or ethnicity. Some communities face greater health burdens because of racist policies and disinvestment. For example, communities of color are more likely to feel the harms of climate change sooner because of disinvestment and past racist policies, like redlining and racial covenants, that segregated neighborhoods.
Climate change threatens our health, but when people, communities, and local and federal government respond, we can build a healthier, safer future for everyone. RWJF teamed up with StoryCorps to capture the stories of people across the United States who are being impacted by climate change. This collection explores how climate change is impacting health, implications for equity and what communities are doing to plan for the future.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. Since 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived interviews with over 650,000 participants, creating the largest single collection of human voices ever gathered. The recordings are archived online and at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
Fighting Wildfires and Asthma
Ta’Kira Dannette Byrd and her mother, Shawntierra Dolton, discuss hopes for cleaner air as the threat of wildfires grows.
A Texas Winter Storm Leaves People in the Cold
Community organizers Rebecca Sanchez and Kellee Coleman recount a community’s response to extreme weather.
Climate and Environmental Justice in Alabama
Catherine Coleman Flowers and her brother Jay talk about the ways climate change makes failed wastewater systems more unhealthy.
Staying Cool in Hotter Cities
Researcher Vivek Shandas and his son Suhail reflect on the 2021 heat wave in Portland, Ore.
Working to Protect Salmon, First Foods and Indigenous Culture
Larry Campbell and Jamie Donatuto talk about how climate change threatens the culture, traditions, food, and health of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.
Adapting Farming for Climate Change
Fred Christenson and his son Graham discuss the impacts of climate change on their family farm in Nebraska.
Fighting Against Unhealthy Air Pollution in Their Neighborhood
Activists Luz Velez and Geo Hernandez talk about how they are fighting against dangerous climate pollution in Buffalo, N.Y.
Farming to Feed Puerto Rico in a Changing Climate
Ana Elisa Quintero and Elda Guadalupe discuss their challenges and hopes for expanding community farming on Vieques Island.
Extreme Weather Is Driving People from their Homes
Sarah Renee Oźlański and Natandra Lewis discuss how their friendship grew when Natandra and her son were displaced by Hurricane Dorian.
A Colorado Teen and State Legislator Come Together in Climate Change Advocacy
Ethan Reed and State Rep. Edie Hooten talk about the threat of climate change and advocacy across generations.
Wildfires, like the ones that Ta’Kira and her mom, Shawntierra, experience in Vallejo, Calif., fill the air with smoke and air pollution that makes it hard to breathe, taking a greater toll on those with asthma. Climate change is causing higher temperatures and more drought conditions, which make it easier for wildfires to spread. And even if wildfires only burn in one community, the smoke travels not only to other parts of the state, but across the country. For communities of color that already face higher rates of asthma, wildfires present even more health consequences. In just the past 10 years, these impacts have grown, making it harder for kids to go to school and play. Despite these health impacts, Ta’Kira and her mom share their hopes for the future. Read the video transcript.
Rebecca Sanchez and Kellee Coleman are both organizers with Communities of Color United (CCU) and work to advance racial and economic justice in Austin, Texas. When Winter Storm Uri swept the South in February 2021, it put a spotlight on inequities in communities from Austin to Jackson, Miss., and towns and cities across the region. While some communities had resources and infrastructure to withstand the worst of the storm, many neighborhoods that are home to people of color and those farthest from economic opportunities were left without clean water, heat, or power for days and in some cases weeks.
The health impacts of climate change are wide ranging and can be felt in very different ways in different regions of the country. You can read more about how warming in the Arctic fueled the cold snap in the Southern United States in this United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change report or at ClimateSignals. Read the video transcript.
Climate Change is Overwhelming Already-Failing Infrastructure
Catherine Coleman Flowers and her brother Jay Coleman reflect on how climate change is amplifying the health inequities in Lowndes County, Ala., as storms and extreme weather overwhelm substandard housing and infrastructure—and they draw on inspiration from their parents to carry forward in this work.
Catherine Coleman Flowers has been an advocate for environmental justice and investments in rural communities for decades. Her work was driven by her experiences in Lowndes County, Ala., where she grew up: Too many residents don’t have sewer or working septic systems and local laws and policy criminalize residents for their inability to afford these improvements. As part of a landmark research effort that revealed a shocking number of cases of hookworm in the rural South—a tropical disease long thought to be eradicated from the United States—she brought attention to the health inequities stemming from a lack of investment in low-income, rural communities. These inequities will only be made worse by climate change, as communities see more heavy rain that overwhelm sanitation systems and spread dangerous waste water.
Catherine and her brother Jay discuss the challenges facing Lowndes County, where three out of four residents are Black, and the solutions and work of residents to help each other address this lack of investment into critical infrastructure. Read the video transcript.
Father and Son Study Racial and Economic Inequities in the 2021 Heat Wave in the Pacific Northwest
Researcher Vivek Shandas and his son, Suhail, from Portland, Ore., recall measuring temperatures across Portland, Oregon to understand why some neighborhoods get hotter and are more unhealthy for residents--and how green space can help.
In late June 2021, states across the Pacific Northwest experienced a record-setting heat wave. On June 28th, 2021, Portland, Oregon reached an unprecedented 116 degrees Fahrenheit, with some neighborhoods reaching even hotter temperatures. The health impacts of this heat wave were exacerbated by climate change. Professor Vivek Shandas and his 11-year-old son, Suhail, recounted their experiences during the heat wave and how it affected their city.
Shandas’ research has mapped and studied why some neighborhoods in cities are hotter than others by looking at how they were segregated using the government practice of redlining. As a result, communities that are more likely to be home to people of color or those farthest from economic opportunity often experience hotter temperatures today due to disinvestment and less green space and tree canopy. His research has explored the harm of these practices, but also the importance of green spaces, such as parks and green infrastructure, to cooling neighborhoods and keeping people healthier and safer. Read the video transcript.
Responding to the Ways Climate Change Threatens the Food, Health, and Culture of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community
Larry Campbell and Jamie Donatuto discuss how climate change is impacting the salmon and first foods that are central to their culture and health in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.
The people of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community live on present day Fidalgo Island in the Salish Sea of northwest Washington State. From the whitecaps of the Cascade Mountains to the whitecaps of the Pacific Ocean, the Swinomish people call these lands and waters their home. The area is rich in first foods and medicines such as salmon, shellfish, deer, elk, and cedar. Swinomish health and well-being is integrally tied to relationships with the first foods and medicines, nourishing the bodies and spirits of the Swinomish people since time immemorial.
But climate change threatens this integral part of their culture and their health when it damages salmon and shellfish habitats. The Swinomish use traditional knowledge and practices to restore and protect the fisheries, waters, and resources of the region. Swinomish Elder Larry Campbell and Jamie Donatuto, the Tribe’s environmental health analyst, sat down to talk about the importance of the first foods to the health of the Swinomish. Read the video transcript.
Fifth generation family farmer Fred Christensen has seen the impacts of climate change on his Nebraska farm. Increasing floods and pests, both connected to climate change, have made it harder to make a living off the land. Fred and his son, Graham, talked through these challenges, how it affects mental health, and the climate-friendly adaptations they’re making.
Increased rainfall and snowmelt in early March 2019 led to extreme floods that ravaged the Midwest. In Nebraska, flooding put residents and their livelihoods in danger, leading to evacuations and over $440 million in crop losses. It only made the ongoing mental health impacts from the stress of farming and extreme weather worse.
But there is hope. Improving the way farmers use and manage soil through regenerative agricultural practices can help protect crops from climate change that is already underway from past emissions, capture and store carbon to reduce future climate change, and even make food more nutritious. Large scale use of regenerative agriculture practices could begin to help change the course of climate change. Read the video transcript.
Our neighborhoods and homes play an outsized role in our opportunities to live healthy lives. In the city of Buffalo, N.Y., organizers, including Luz Velez and Geo Hernandez, are working to improve housing and health in their neighborhood and city. Some residents live closer to sources of air pollution, which contribute to climate change and are a health risk. The city also has many older, energy inefficient homes, which are often too expensive to heat or cool appropriately, threatening residents’ safety.
PUSH Green is a program that helps people with low incomes improve the energy efficiency of their homes to make homes healthier and more affordable to maintain through reduced heating and electric bills. These improvements to homes can make them healthier by mitigating risks, such as mold and lead exposure, and making them more climate-friendly and comfortable. Luz not only worked with PUSH Green to improve her home, she also began working with People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo to help others in her community. Luz and Geo are both advocates for cleaner air, more equitable opportunities for healthier lives, and for action to address climate change. Read the video transcript.
Co-Directors Ana Elisa Quintero and Elda Guadalupe created a partnership, La Colmena Cimarrona, between farmers and the community to build food sovereignty, equity, and justice on Puerto Rico’s island of Vieques. Climate change has increased and magnified the impact of natural disasters and extreme weather, such as Hurricane Maria in 2017, making it difficult for residents to have enough food, especially fresh produce. It is also making hot and dry periods even more extreme. La Colmena Cimarrona is planting more weather resilient crops and centering agroecology, a way of farming sustainably in nature that is helping to address climate change.
Over half of all children and almost half of all adults in Puerto Rico live in poverty, and many families lack consistent access to enough food. With 90 percent of food imported to the island, building capacity for climate-smart farming is central to improving health within the community and bringing economic opportunity to the region. Read the video transcript.
In 2019, Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, Natandra Lewis’ home country, leading her to evacuate to the United States, where she met Sarah Renee Oźlański. Sarah had experienced Hurricanes Sandy, Irma, and Matthew and volunteered to help because she understood the havoc hurricanes cause. Natandra and Sarah came together to tell the story of the friendship that came out of this experience.
Hurricanes have a long history of damage in the Southeast, but in recent years climate change has magnified these storms and the reach of their impacts. Not only do hurricanes cause evacuations and displacement, like Natandra’s from the Bahamas, they worsen existing diseases; damage homes; disrupt healthcare; and lead to injuries, illnesses, poor mental health, and even death. Not all people are impacted equally by hurricanes. People living on the coast, people with low income, and people of color are disproportionately more likely to face these severe health impacts. Read the video transcript.
The health impacts of climate change are felt differently in communities across the country, and youth activist Ethan Reed is motivated by seeing how his generation is responding both locally and globally to climate change and its impacts. Living in Colorado, Ethan has taken time to learn about the global impacts of climate change while seeing locally the ways that wildfires have impacted people he knows.
State Representative Edie Hooten and Ethan sat down to talk about their friendship and the importance of intergenerational leadership on climate change solutions. Ethan expands on the urgency of the moment as his concerns grow about a future with more extreme heat, drought, and natural disasters. Read the video transcript.
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