Dr. Susan Pacheco, one of the 11 “Champions of Change” honored at the White House on July 9, 2013 for educating people about climate change. (Courtesy Dr. Susan Pacheco)

Two Latinas honored as “Champions of Change” in climate change

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan recognizing the need to cut carbon pollution, this week the White House honored 11 individuals as “Champions of Change” who are working to protect public health in a changing climate. Dr. Yadira Caraveo, from Thornton, Colorado and Dr. Susan E. Pacheco of Houston, Texas were two of the Champions honored for raising awareness about these health consequences and helping their communities prepare for climate-related health impacts.

“We’re faced with the reality that these things are happening,” said Bob Perciasepe, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “A way to adapt is to figure out how to deal with the health effects.”

Dr. Pacheco agrees. The pediatrician and professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center, specializing in pediatric asthma, allergies and immunology has been trying to educate people about the effects of climate change since 2006 — when she saw the documentary, ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ with her children for the first time.

“Ever since then, everything changed…this was an eye opener,” says Dr. Pacheco, who moved to the states from Puerto Rico 28 years ago.

“I started working with the Climate Reality Project for former Vice President Al Gore in 2006, and I’ve been working with the group ever since.”

Shortly after, she also founded The Alliance of Health Professionals Against Climate Change and the Texas Coalition for Climate Change Awareness — organizations formed by diverse community groups and individuals willing to take a public stance and call attention to the adverse effects of climate change in Texas.

“What worries me the most is the vulnerability of the populations that are not as blessed as we are that have access to knowledge,” says Dr. Pacheco, explaining that in the U.S., minorities are more at risk than other populations just because of their social and economic limitations.

She goes on to say that in 2010, there were 1.6 million children reported homeless according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and that number is expected to increase with climate change as there are more weather-related catastrophes.

“With Hurricane Katrina there were thousands of people who had to leave everything they knew to move away from a natural disaster,” says Dr. Pacheco. “When I was a volunteer at the Astrodome, I remember hearing on the speaker systems, ‘We need a family of three to go to New York,’ and it was completely unreal what was happening. People were being completely displaced — the same thing happened with Sandy, and most of them were minorities.”

Dr. Caraveo, a general pediatrician in the Denver area, has been involved with the work of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Voces Verdes, providing insight into the medical perspective on climate change’s public health impacts.  Caraveo says almost 4 million Latino youth have asthma and carbon emissions have a lot to do with it.

RELATED: Founder of Voces Verdes speaks her mind to save the environment

“I was nominated for some work I’ve done around carbon emissions in coal burning power plants,” says Dr. Caraveo. “A lot of people think about global warming, but I don’t think they realize the health effects it can have with asthma.”

Dr. Pacheco is also a health representative for the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, a group of climate change experts who provide accurate scientific information about the climate to the media and government, the crucial first step is awareness.

“Most of our Hispanic brothers and sisters don’t know what climate change is,” she says. “They don’t know how to mitigate the climate problems. It’s very important to me to bring awareness to our communities, because we need to get prepared.”

She has witnessed that in days of extreme heat and high ozone levels, admissions to the hospitals and emergency rooms have increased. Also, the intensity of allergies are increasing, because weeds like ragweed produce more pollen and the allergy seasons are longer because they are starting earlier.

“The best thing we can do is educate ourselves so we can educate others and decrease the activities that can make climate change worse,” says Dr. Pacheco. “I talk to every person that I can to make them aware.”

So does Dr. Caraveo. She tells everyone to reduce their own carbon emissions and be conscious about energy conservation.

“We need more public support around the President’s Action Plan,” says Dr. Caraveo. “People should be more conscious about the air quality. Unfortunately, children have to limit their outdoor activity due to air quality – if ozone levels are orange or red, keep kids inside…About 40 percent of Latinos live within 30 miles of a coal burning power plant. People have never had to regulate carbon before, so that’s going to be a big challenge.”

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