House Preventative Health Policy Division takes on Climate Change

By: Sheila Regan, Freelance Community Journalist

For its second meeting, the Minnesota House of Representative new Preventive Health Policy Division took aim at climate change as a factor in healthy lives. This was after the first meeting held earlier in January focused on the vaccine rollout. 

Chaired by Rep. Mike Freiberg (D- 45B), the meeting focused on experts sharing knowledge about not only the impact of climate change on health and wellness of Minnesotans, but also ways that climate change has exacerbated racial disparities in health. 

The meeting took place on the day that President Joe Biden unveiled his plan to combat climate change, seeking to put the breaks on oil and natural gas leases on public lands, and other executive actions aimed at reducing emissions and reach benchmarks outlined by the Paris climate accord. 

Joining the members of the Preventative Health Policy Division were members of the Energy and Climate Finance and Policy Division, chaired by Rep. Jean Wagenius (D- 63B). 

Among the speakers was Kristin Raab, director of the Minnesota Climate and Health program at the Minnesota Department of Health, who called climate change “the great amplifier,” in that it was quickly worsening issues such as extreme rain events, increases in asthma, heat waves, etc. 

Dr. Nyasha Spears, a family Physician in Duluth, echoed that sentiment.” Over last 20 years, I have observed changes that should be recognized as harbingers of what is to come,” she said. “They are the canaries in the coal mine.” Spears added she has seen more tick-born illnesses, allergies, and other climate-impacted illnesses in her practice. “We don’t want to wait for Dengue Fever or Malaria to march North to act,” she said. 

Teddie Potter  Director of Planetary Health at the University of Minnesota’s School of Nursing, meanwhile, spoke of ways that climate change issues far away across the globe impact us here in Minnesota. “Hurricane Maria shows our interdependence,” she said. “Hospitals in Minnesota were impacted by the shortage of IV bags because of the hurricane in Puerto Rico.” 

Also testifying before the division were experts who talked about climate change’s impact on Black and Indigenous communities and people of color (BIPOC). Dr. Zeke J. McKinney, a research investigator with HealthPartners, discussed ways that BIPOC communities are baring the brunt of climate change, through everything from eco-gentrification and the effect of climate change on Black mothers. “We must address climate change with most vulnerable communities,” he said. 

Another researcher, Professor Christie Manning, from Macalester, spoke of three pathways that exasperate inequality in regard to climate change. The first pathway is trauma from acute events, like the extreme flood that happened in Jordan, Minnesota.  The 2nd pathway is the  gradual changes of climate changes, like  increased heat, worsening air quality, and longer periods of draught.  Finally, according to Manning, climate change causes anxiety and uncertainty about the future. “People realize we are facing a grave problem and not adequately addressing climate change,” she said. 

In response to the presenters, two Republican lawmakers offered criticism. Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen (R-18B) cited a climate change denying book published by the Heartland Institute to refute the speakers, and questioned whether health disparities were from climate change or because of the reimbursement rate for patients on medical assistance. 

Laalitha Surapaneni, an internal medicine hospitalist at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, responded, “Unfortunately there has been a very concerted misinformation campaign for a lot of years,” she said. “I do have to push back and say that over 97 percent of scientists who work in climate related fields agree that it’s happening now and is accelerated.”

“The science is settled,” Surapaneni said. 

Rep. Gruenhagen responded that she was repeating “fraud and lies.” 

Another Republican lawmaker, Rep. Josh Heintzeman (R- 10A), commented, “I do take issue with some of the comments being made when there is a difference of opinion.” He suggested people “google when science got it wrong.”

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