EOH Students and the Third National Climate Assessment

August 19, 2014

McQueen & Shimamoto on the USGCRP building’s roof

A growing body of evidence links climate change to health concerns, but raising awareness about these connections remains a challenge.  A recent Gallup Poll showed that only 39% of Americans believe that climate change poses a serious threat to their way of life.  Three EOH students had the opportunity to raise awareness about the health issues posed by our changing climate by working for the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) over the past two years.  Their experience was rendered all the more memorable by the timing of the release of the program’s Congressionally-mandated Third National Climate Assessment (NCA3)—it was during GW’s finals week.

The USGCRP is a confederation composed of the research arms of 13 federal agencies. It is steered by the Subcommittee on Global Change Research and overseen by the White House’s Office of Science Technology and Policy.  It was established by Presidential initiative in 1989.  In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Global Change Research Act, which mandated the development of “a comprehensive and integrated United States research program which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.”  The USGCRP is under a legal mandate to publish a National Climate Assessment (NCA) every four years.  EOH MPH Environmental Health Science and Policy students Amanda McQueen and Mark Shimamoto and recent graduate Tara Failey each happened to land different positions with the USGCRP while the program was gearing up to release the Third National Climate Assessment (NCA3). 

Climate Change Is Already Impacting U.S. Citizens’ Health

The NCA3 is a comprehensive report that assesses the impacts of climate change on every region of the country and key sectors of the U.S. economy and society, including human health.  When the assessment was published on the morning of May 6, 2014, an announcement was distributed to health organizations across the nation. It stressed one of the report’s key messages: “Climate change threatens human health and well being in many ways, including impacts from increased extreme weather events, wildfires, decreased air quality, threats to mental health, and illnesses transmitted by food, water, and disease carriers such as mosquitoes and ticks.”  The mailing also conveyed the report’s observation that some of these health impacts are already underway in the United States.

Shimamoto coordinated the effort to communicate the aforementioned message to the public health community.  He both identified the key stakeholders interested in the connection between climate and health and worked with USGRCP’s communications specialists to help decide which messages about climate change’s impact on human health would be highlighted. 

McQueen played more of a behind-the-scenes support role in helping to produce the report by working with the team that manages the Global Change Information System (GCIS), a web-based resource for climate and global change data.  Her tasks included aiding in the identification of supporting information from the reports referenced in the NCA3—such as the underlying datasets—and verifying the sources by tracking the information back to its original source.  The GCIS makes such data and content available to everyone, from scientific researchers to the general public. The USGCRP’s website, GlobalChange.gov, filters the data by topic, region, and other parameters to serve different user communities and information needs.

Working at the USGCRP at the time of the NCA3’s roll-out was a “huge, tense, but absolutely exciting time…. Seeing it all come together was really big,” McQueen recalls.  The days leading to the report’s release were intense, with both McQueen and Shimamoto running back and forth between GW—for finals—and the USGCRP office. 

A key moment was when the Federal Advisory Committee for the report handed it off to the White House, Shimamoto says.  “Within two hours of the release,” it was being covered in the national news. 

Practica and Jobs

Failey was the first of the three to connect with the USGCRP.  She learned about an opportunity there from Associate Professor Pete LaPuma, EOH’s Practicum Director, who assists students in identifying practicum opportunities. Shimamoto learned about the opportunity at the program from the regular EOH Opportunities emails that are sent to students to pass along information about potential practica and jobs.

Ultimately, Failey and McQueen chose to conduct their practicum with other federal organizations undertaking other environmental challenges such as sustainability and chemical accidents, while Shimamoto’s route to his practicum at the USGCRP was more direct.  Failey did her practicum at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in a sustainability initiative which trains employees to be aware of environmental justice concerns.  McQueen did hers at the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents.

Because of GW’s location in the nation’s capital, students often seek enriching employment opportunities to supplement their academic experience, points out Assistant Professor Kate Applebaum. Failey, McQueen and Shimamoto all went that route by accepting job opportunities at the USGCRP while they were students at GW.

Shimamoto’s relationship with the USGCRP began when he applied for a practicum opportunity to assist the NCA team with managing the draft report as it went through the public comment period.  “It connected well with my interests, background, and undergraduate experience, so I applied,” he recalls.  During the application process, he noticed the USGCRP was also hiring a part-time employee to coordinate their climate change and human health program.  Even though he suspected that he was “way underqualified” for it, he also applied for that position. 

Shimamoto became the USGCRP’s Health Coordinator in May 2013 at the end of his second semester at GW.  In this position, he works with the 60-odd government scientists and employees involved in the Interagency Crosscutting Group on Climate Change and Human Health (CCHHG).  “My main role is to act as the conduit between the main 13 agencies and trying to connect the dots,” he explains.  He also helps to integrate health across the USGCRP’s four strategic goals: Advance ScienceInform DecisionsConduct Sustained Assessments, and Communicate & Educate.

Through the connections Failey made while applying for a practicum, she learned of an opportunity to work as a communications and education assistant.  She helped develop content for the USGCRP’s website until last September.  Though Failey left the program prior to the NCA3’s release, she helped the USGCRP’s Communications team publicize information about research that supported the report, including on the potential future impacts of differing levels of carbon dioxide emissions. Working at the office during the public comment period on the draft report was interesting, Failey notes, because of the opportunity to be privy to what other citizens and organizations had to say about the draft report.

McQueen is grateful to Failey for alerting her to the opportunity for a student assistantship at the USGCRP last year.  After applying “on a whim,” and landing the assistantship, McQueen began working at the USGCRP in January 2014.

Where Are They Now?

Shimamoto has since transitioned to fulltime status at the USGCRP, and he credits the practicum process and overall experience as the impetus for this opportunity.  In addition to his role as a coordinator, he is a member of the Steering Committee for the Interagency Report on the Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States, which is part of the NCA’s sustained assessment process between quadrennial reports and responds to the President’s Climate Action Plan.   This report will build upon the work done for the health chapter of the NCA3 and provide a more thorough assessment of the current and future impacts of climate change on human health.  Concurrently, he is working on his Culminating Experience (CE) project, which is focused on analyzing stakeholder interviews to better understand the motivations behind why and how six U.S. cities are adapting to the health impacts of climate change.

Failey currently works for MDB, Inc., a Washington, DC-based consulting company focused on environmental health.  In her current position, she focuses on projects in partnership with the Worker Training Program (WTP) and Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) at the National Institutes for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). She is also involved the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Environmental Justice initiatives, including an Environmental Justice training for employees.  She played a significant role in developing this training program during her practicum while attending GW's Milken Institute School of Public Health.  

McQueen continues to work at the USGCRP, where she is primarily helping the GCIS team support various projects, including aiding Mark Shimamoto and his team on the development of the climate and health special reportShe also is finishing up her occupational health-oriented CE project focused on construction industry practices aimed at preventing falls.  She hopes to disseminate her findings to both the construction and academic communities, as well as to find a job in the DC area focused on environmental/occupational health science and policy.

All three EOH students credit their practicum and work opportunities with enhancing their MPH studies.  They also agree with the NCA3’s statement that “public health actions, especially preparedness and prevention, can do much to protect people from some of the impacts of climate change. Early action provides the largest health benefits. As threats increase, our ability to adapt to future changes may be limited.” 

Failey, McQueen, and Shimamoto urge their fellow EOH MPH students to aim high and network with faculty to explore the many outstanding local venues for practicum opportunities and work experiences during their time at GW.  They are all grateful for GW’s role in helping them find their opportunities at the USGCRP and other federal agencies and local organizations.