When you’re taking on a crisis as comprehensive as climate change, almost any thread you pull will lead back to it. For Dr. Jerome Paulson, his thread was lead poisoning among his patients.
Dr. Paulson is a retired pediatrician who helped found Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action (VCCA), which has a joint plan of work with Virginia Organizing. His journey into climate justice work began during his residency at Johns Hopkins and Mt. Sinai hospitals in Baltimore, when he was treating children affected by lead paint. Children from marginalized BIPOC neighborhoods were living in unsafe, substandard housing that was making them sick. When Paulson accepted a faculty position at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland he saw the same issue there, and again when he moved to George Washington Children’s Hospital in Washington, DC. By this time he had learned about additional toxins that were affecting children, and his understanding began to broaden.
For Dr. Paulson, the repetition revealed a pattern: being poor and Black made it more likely you were going to be poisoned by your housing, and this was true no matter where in the US you were. What was an environmental health issue was in fact an environmental justice issue. Environmental health and justice are inseparable, and as a physician Paulson felt he needed to come at the issue systemically. That included the ways the changing climate disproportionally impacts marginalized communities – an analysis that includes but goes beyond toxics.
After doing a rotation as the Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health, he decided to put focused energy on climate change. A colleague asked him to collaborate in the formation of what became VCCA. Modeled after a similar organization in Ohio, VCCA launched in 2018, and brings together concerned professionals from every branch and professional level of medicine, from nurses to pharmacists to doctors to medical students.
“We have a tripartite mission,” Paulson explains. “We educate health professionals about climate change and human health, we educate the general public, and we engage in advocacy at the General Assembly and the executive branch in Richmond.”
Much of VCCA’s work is advocacy for state-level policy change. The organization is part of a nationwide coalition that now includes clinicians’ groups in 25 other states. “We have found that state-level organizing is strategic because a lot of policy is decided by states. Utility regulation is one example,” Paulson says.
Now that he is retired Dr. Paulson is able to put more focus on volunteering, which includes his role with VCCA. Much of his energy and inspiration comes from the students he has worked with on climate issues.
“We need to build multi-generational systems,” because “I see no end in my lifetime to the need for more climate solutions,” he says. For Paulson, it is gratifying to see clinicians he knew as students working on climate issues as professionals and teaching their successors. VCCA is making a tremendous impact in educational settings as they mentor students into the work, and so the work that VCCA does has taken on a momentum of its own as people carry it forward.
The biggest struggle right now is representation. “We want to be more representative of directly affected communities, but people of color are underrepresented in the medical field. We want to make those connections,” he says. To do that, VCCA wants to connect with more groups who are doing environmental justice and community organizing work.
“We want to work with any individuals or groups who have questions about climate and health, who want to learn about that topic to inform their work,” Paulson adds. “If you know of health professionals in your community who are interested in this work, please connect us!”