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Researchers: U.S. professional societies move to make climate change a component of education, outreach

General Foundation News

Cover Image Prof. Soc. ReportMost urban-focused professional societies in the United States are educating their members on climate change issues, but few have adopted a holistic approach that includes adaptation, mitigation and the explicit recognition of social justice implications, according to a new report commissioned by The Kresge Foundation.

The global climate is changing, leading to impacts that are already being felt across the United States.  To prevent the worst impacts and prepare for unavoidable changes, individuals from different professions,

backgrounds, and areas of expertise need to integrate climate change into their thinking and decision making.

The report, Professional Societies and Climate Change,” analyzes the extent to which that is happening inside organizations that provide education and resources for professions as varied as engineering, municipal planning and medicine. Researchers found that the professional societies most engaged on climate issues recognize the substantial impacts that climate change has on their missions and membership.

“Professional societies play a critical role in educating their members on emerging issues and establishing standards of practice.  It’s heartening to see the depth of programming on climate change that some societies are offering,” said Lois DeBacker, managing director of Kresge’s Environment Program.  “Professionals increasingly recognize that the decisions they make can accelerate or slow greenhouse gas emissions, and also affect how well society prepares for climate impacts. Membership organizations are well positioned to speed the mainstreaming of climate considerations into decision making at the local level.”

The report was authored by independent climate adaptation consultant Dr. Missy Stults and Ph.D. researcher and consultant Sara Meerow.

“Climate change must become a core component of the culture, educational curriculum, and standards of practice of nearly every profession,” said Stults. “We were pleased to find this is occurring in many instances, but recognize that it is often taking place in piecemeal fashion.”

The societies analyzed by the researchers mirror the diversity of professions operating at the local level. Those professions play crucial roles in building the resilience of local communities to climate change. They include architects, builders and developers, doctors and other medical professionals, elected officials and city/county managers, emergency management professionals, engineers, planners, public works officials, social advocates, transportation officials, water resource professionals, and more.

Collectively, the societies are engaged in nine overarching types of climate or social justice activities: 1) advocacy; 2) education and information dissemination; 3) external partnership building; 4) funding; 5) networking; 6) recognition; 7) research; 8) standard setting; and 9) training.  Few organizations, however, are combining these techniques into a holistic approach to educating and engaging their members.

Researchers learned that sustainability is a familiar theme embraced by many professional societies, often serving as an entrée into climate change work.

For example, the National League of Cities (NLC) has worked on sustainability initiatives for a decade. About five years ago the organization began incorporating climate more holistically into its sustainability programs, especially programs related to transportation. Today, the NLC advocates for, and has position statements on policies to promote climate mitigation, climate adaptation, and clean energy. It also has a Sustainable Cities Institute, which hosts resources to help municipalities advance issues related to climate resilience, buildings and energy, transportation, land use and planning, and more.

The issue of social equity – ensuring mitigation and adaptation policies and actions benefit low-income, minority and underserved communities – was not a prevalent theme among the organizations analyzed in the report. But research found a near-universal desire for more information on how to incorporate equity issues into climate change work and education.

For example, when asked if their membership would be interested in learning more about equity and social justice, representatives from the National Medical Association said: “Absolutely, yes. This is something our members have explicitly asked for.”

Across the board, organizations expressed a desire to better share experiences, resources and lessons learned with others.

“There is a hunger for more information, particularly short, digestible stories about the work peers are doing on climate, and resources and tools for translating scientific information into actionable practices,” said Meerow, one of the report’s authors.

Nine exemplar organizations exhibited the most comprehensive approaches to educating and engaging their members.  These were the:

The report recommends a number of opportunities to mainstream social justice and climate change into the operations and engagement strategies of professional organizations, ranging from peer learning networks to partnerships between climate change and social justice groups.