Among nurses, says Erica Jones, there is an unspoken rule to “stay in your lane.”
“It’s a little scary, for sure,” said Jones, 31, who works in the burn and trauma unit at the MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Northwest Washington and has not participated in political action of this sort before. “But it’s hard with climate change. It’s harder and harder to avoid taking a stand.”
Nurses like Jones are mobilizing in growing numbers, joining a movement led in large part by youth activists.
Apart from students and scientists, organizers say, health-care workers — specifically, nurses — are anticipated to have the strongest presence at major climate rallies being held nationwide over the next few days. In addition to joining the action Monday, delegations of nurses attended protests Friday in New York and Washington.
Some say they are driven to act by what they see in their clinics; others, by brushes with climate disaster or medical mission trips. Those interviewed last week said they have carefully weighed their decisions to join the picket line.
Nursing was ranked in Gallup’s annual ethics survey as the most trusted profession in the country for 17 consecutive years. It is a reputation they know could be at risk in certain communities if they openly support efforts to address climate change.
But advocates say this reputation also places nurses in a unique position to drive the climate movement forward.
“They are incredibly credible voices that span all political spectrums,” said Sara Shor, the associate director of U.S. campaigns at the global environmental group 350.org.
Groups of nurses have previously advocated for environmental issues.
In 2008, while Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Committee on Environment and Public Works, was calling global warming “a hoax,” the American Nurses Association published a resolution declaring that “the challenges we face as a result of global climate change are unprecedented in human history.”
Five years later, nurses in San Francisco led hundreds of people across the Golden Gate Bridge to protest the Keystone XL pipeline connecting Canada and the United States.
But starting in late 2017 — with Hurricane Maria, some say — there has been a new, broad-based surge of interest in the issue within the profession.
Katie Huffling, the executive director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, said the organization has seen an uptick in nurses attending events and lectures on climate change.
Nella Pineda-Marcon, a nurse at Mount Sinai-St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan, was among the founding members of the Climate Justice and Disaster Relief Committee at the New York State Nurses Association. For years, she said, the committee struggled to recruit members. Now, nurses across the state email asking how they can join.
Jones said this summer — the warmest on record for the Northern Hemisphere — was the first time she saw patients suffer burns after coming into contact with the sidewalk.
Fellow D.C. nurse Amanda Trebach, 33, said she has noticed an increase in heat-related illnesses, and Kristen Brown, an intensive-care unit nurse based in Lanham, Md., reported more patients coming in for chronic respiratory diseases.
“I hadn’t connected the dots until now,” said Brown, 32, who is marching for the first time on Friday, joining other nurses in an event led by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.
“Once you become more aware of the problem,” Jones said, “it’s hard, as a person who cares about other people, to ignore it.”
In 2012, when Superstorm Sandy hit the coastal Far Rockaway neighborhood in Queens, nurses at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital took turns sleeping in the break room while working 18-hour shifts, recalled Iona Folkes, an emergency room nurse and member of health-care union 1199SEIU.
Suddenly, they could make a connection between their lunchtime view of the Atlantic Ocean and what the talking heads on television were saying about rising sea levels.
“There was the understanding that this directly can affect me,” Folkes said. “It’s like, okay, it’s serious, we really have to be concerned.”
In response to student demands at the University of Minnesota’s nursing school, all faculty have been asked to incorporate climate change into their curriculums, said professor Teddie Potter.
To Potter, who has served as the faculty lead on the initiative, the move makes sense. Nurses are used to caring for patients in “multi-system failure,” in which different biological systems malfunction simultaneously, she said.
“This is part of our profession. We look at mobility, we look at nutrition, we are big-systems thinkers,” she added. “Well, it happens right now that the earth is in multi-system failure.”
But longtime climate advocates within the profession say not everyone is on board. Many nurses struggle to carve out time for dedicated political action.
Although there is a consensus among nurses that climate change is a problem, as in other science-based professions, some still believe their role is by the bedside, not in the streets, Huffling said.
“It takes a lot for us to want to step out of our role and be more political,” Jones said. “So if we are, people should listen.”