Editor's Note: Winds of Change
Having emerged from a late summer and fall of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, environmentalists are considering the influence climate change has on the frequency of intense storms such as these. Unfortunately, climate change doubters and deniers still abound in the highest governmental positions. However, one thing is certain: Climate change—and the intense storms that may be connected to it—deeply affect public health, and that is a social work issue.
Climate change is not something to worry about for the future—it is an existential crisis here and now. Terri Klemm, MSW, LCSW, an associate professor of social work and director of the Bachelor of Social Work program at Centenary University in New Jersey, says that "Since the year 2000, we've experienced 16 of the hottest 17 years ever recorded. In fact, in every year for the last several years, we've exceeded the previous record for the hottest year in recorded history. It's past the point where we can talk about climate change only as an issue that will impact future generations because we're beginning to feel some of the severe effects of the climate crisis now."
"Extreme events like heat waves, heavy rainfall, and winter extremes are more likely with a changing climate," says Lisa Reyes Mason, PhD, MSW, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work.
"The increasing number of these extreme weather events—hurricanes that are unprecedented in size and strength, for example—are very much in line with what climate scientists have been warning we should expect as a result of global warming," Klemm says.
The emotional stress and trauma of events like hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria can have chronic, long-term impacts without adequate treatment and care. Social workers must be keenly aware of those risks. With the advent of concern about climate change, the classic person-in-the-environment social work approach to working with clients has taken on new meaning. Social workers can no longer limit themselves to concern about the biopsychosocial environment. Taking a view of the bigger picture of the natural environment is critical and there is no turning back. Social workers must commit themselves not only to social justice but also to environmental justice for the health and well-being of their clients.