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From research to practice: How one UW alum is moving climate and health policy forward in their home state

By: Sara Adams

Nate Matthews-Trigg
Nate Matthews-Trigg

Oh the places you’ll go– after graduation! We caught up with CHanGE alum Nathaniel Matthews-Trigg, Department of Global Health 2017 graduate and current Affiliate Instructor in the Department of Environmental and Health Sciences (DEOHS), to learn more about his work moving climate and health policy forward in New Mexico.

Q: Can you share a bit about your background, your involvement with CHanGE and your current role?

Nate: I graduated in December 2017 with a Master’s in Public Health from the UW Department of Global Health (DGH) and a Graduate Certificate in Climate Change and Health (GCeCCH) from the Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHanGE). I was the first student to graduate from the GCeCCH program, which I credit for shaping my career trajectory and climate activism.

In 2018, I began working in both traditional municipal and healthcare emergency management in the Puget Sound region, utilizing my climate and health research background to support local and regional emergency preparedness and response activities. In January 2020, I joined DEOHS as an affiliate instructor to support collaboration between the research community and local emergency management. In 2021, I moved back to New Mexico, where I grew up, and became involved in local environmental justice and public health activism.

Q: Tell us more about how you became involved in climate and health policy in New Mexico.

Nate: When I moved back, I joined the New Mexico Public Health Association and New Mexico Association of Emergency Management Professionals. Throughout the fall of 2021, I scheduled informational interviews with local leaders and community organizers to understand the climate and health work being done in the state. I learned that organizations and state agencies were overwhelmingly focused on climate mitigation—reducing emissions—New Mexico is the second largest crude-oil-producing state in the country behind Texas. There were few efforts focusing on climate adaptation—the interventions necessary to prevent or reduce current and future impacts to human health and well-being.

I was invited to speak to the New Mexico Department of Health’s Health Infrastructure Task Force in December 2021, a body set up to identify public health priorities for the state. DEOHS and DGH Professor Kristie Ebi presented on the scientific connection between climate change and health. I advocated for the creation of a climate and health program within the New Mexico Department of Health, a successful model in many other states across the country. However, due to competing priorities and political challenges, we realized that we would have to do more than simply talking about the need for adaptation with leaders.

Then in the summer of 2022, New Mexico experienced the worst wildfires in the state’s history. Over 1% of the total area of the state burned, tens of thousands were evacuated in a single day, and most of the state was blanketed in toxic smoke. New Mexico was featured prominently in national media stories as a case study in how climate change is driving increased fire behavior. This woke up many decision-makers to the urgent need for climate and health adaptation in New Mexico to protect the most vulnerable individuals and communities.

This renewed sense of urgency, in combination with continued conversations with state leaders and organizations, allowed us to home in on a strategy for advancing meaningful adaptation work. We began building a coalition of groups, with many of them graciously dedicating time and resources to advance this important cause.

In October 2022, I was invited to speak to the New Mexico Legislative Health and Human Services Committee, to kick off our call for legislation to create a climate and health program and establish a large fund to pay for adaptation work. Our coalition is excited for 2023, when the bill will be brought in front of state legislators to be debated and decided upon.

Q: What are the essential ingredients to developing a successful climate and health policy campaign?

Nate: Firstly, it’s important to have a clear and concise idea about what your community needs, and how your policy will address these needs. Be prepared to talk at great lengths about it or give a one-minute elevator pitch on the idea. It’s key to dentify your allies and work toward creating a coalition to help develop your policy and strategy moving forward.

Next, you need to agitate, educate and organize to build community support for what you are doing and/or get meaningful feedback and input. If legislation is the best strategy to address your community’s needs, seek out people and organizations that have experience doing this. Luckily, there are many great public health and environmental organizations that do policy work and could be great resources. As your policy campaign advances, you want to continue building its momentum.This could include organizing actions, strategic communications (op-eds, social media, etc.) and other ways to get people engaged and excited about supporting your policy.

Ultimately, prepare for the long game. Many bills do not pass when they are first introduced. Pace yourself and have realistic expectations; this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Q: Who are you partnering with in New Mexico to move the legislation forward?

Nate: We have a rapidly growing coalition, composed mostly of environmental, public health, and healthcare organizations.

Q: Were there any unforeseen challenges? Any unexpected positive outcomes?

Nate: I did not anticipate the longer timescale of the process. A year after we began this journey, the interest has snowballed. We went from meetings with just a couple people volunteering their time, to having half a dozen large organizations supporting us with paid staff and communications.

There were many unexpected positive benefits: I was able to learn how policy moves from just an idea to a solidified bill. I built relationships with amazing activists and organizations from across New Mexico, and learned about other exciting environmental opportunities on the horizon.

Q: Do you have any advice for students looking to be involved in local climate and health policy?

Nate: There is an incredible need for motivated individuals to support policy that helps those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. It is critically important to draft policy that is equitable, inclusive and engages the public throughout the development process.

As public health practitioners, we can often bring an important perspective to environmental justice policy that helps connect the dots between environmental harms and human health. Reaching out to groups advancing important environmental policy and volunteering your time can go a long way.
To get started, I recommend getting involved in your local professional associations, such as your state’s chapter of the American Public Health Association. Professional associations often have committees where you can participate and meet others with similar policy interests. I would also encourage students to reach out to environmental groups and start making connections and conversations that can turn into meaningful coalitions, actions and policies.