The Australian College of Nursing (ACN) supports all nurses to advocate for and promote sustainable practices within their workplaces and communities. As part of this, we are proud to have an Emissions Reduction Policy Chapter which draws from the expertise of our membership and focuses on how the carbon footprint can be reduced through nursing leadership.
As part of their work, the Policy Chapter are sharing personal stories of how nurses are using their nursing skills and expertise to reduce emissions in their workplaces and communities. Today, Christine Han shares with us her personal story to becoming an advocate of reducing emissions. You can read all the articles in the series here.
When I was 15, my grandpa was diagnosed with cancer. His care very quickly turned palliative and within a few months, we were in hospital saying our goodbyes. This was the first time I’d ever seen anyone so unwell, the first time I’d been in a hospital, and the first time I saw my family members so upset. My grandpa had a nurse who regularly took care of him; I remember how she looked after my grandpa so carefully and looked after my family too. She answered our questions, gave us advice when we asked, and consoled us as we cried. She made me feel safe and made a very scary experience less so. I remember thinking that I wanted to be like her when I grew up, so that I could help people feel safe too. So, I decided to be a nurse.
I got my dream job at the Royal Children’s Hospital and spent the next eight years working across many specialties, eventually ending up on a medical ward. In my role as a Clinical Nurse Specialist, I was fortunate to be able to choose an area of nursing that I wanted to explore in more detail, to see how I could increase my knowledge and the knowledge of my colleagues and improve the quality of practice on the ward. I wanted to choose an area that could have an impact not only on my ward, but across all areas, and expand into other hospitals too. I wanted to choose something that would have a lasting impact on disease prevention, but also improve how the medical field in general operated. I chose to explore climate change and its effect on health.
The World Health Organization has described climate change as the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century, it has the potential to undermine decades of progress in global health (WHO, 2015)1. Climate change affects health in a multitude of ways, including directly via increased intensity of extreme weather events such as heatwaves and also indirectly through risks to food safety and effects on mental health. In order to decrease the impact of climate change on health, we must mitigate against the cause – that is we must reduce emissions. Nurses look after people when they are sick, but we are also involved in helping people prevent getting sick in the first place. By doing our bit to reduce emissions in health care, nurses are working towards disease prevention, and helping to build a more resilient population.
On my ward, we looked at what everyday actions we could change so that we could decrease emissions. The starting point of this behaviour change was a focus on better waste management processes. We embedded waste hierarchy education into our actions and were more proactive in using our resources more wisely so as to reduce consumption and reduce waste. At an organisational level, the hospital sustainability group investigated how we could reduce energy consumption and source energy from renewable sources.
I went back to university and studied a Master of Environment, transitioning away from clinical nursing into a Sustainability Officer role at another public hospital. In my role there, the focus was on increasing awareness of climate change and its effect on health care and trying to embed sustainability thinking into business as usual. Success here came in the form of increased support for action; more and more hospital staff wanted to change processes to be more environmentally friendly, and demand for action also started to come from our community.
The barriers we faced, and that many other hospitals faced – was resourcing and prioritisation of action. Action to reduce emissions was not a priority for funding, and staff and time constraints meant that among many other important tasks (infection control, timely access for patients etc), sustainability fell down the list. It was often difficult to avoid feeling frustrated at the lack of action, despite the urgency of the situation. I often felt panicked and overwhelmed, that there was so much to do and none of it enough. It’s okay to not always feel hopeful and optimistic. My frustration and panic reminded me how important this work is.
The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated how quickly new policies and strategies can be developed and actioned, and has shown how adaptable and resilient we can be. That same sense of urgency must be experienced with climate change. That sense of urgency, that state of emergency that we all feel is what it will take for widespread emissions reduction to occur.
Written by Christine Han
1World Health Organization, (2015). Climate Change and Human Health, viewed 29th August, 2021, from https://www.who.int/news/item/06-10-2015-who-calls-for-urgent-action-to-protect-health-from-climate-change-sign-the-call