Interview: Public Health and Climate Change with Gillian Capper of the APHA
Updated: Aug 28
Environmental and Engineering Solutions, Inc. recently sat down to talk with Gillian (Gill) Capper (she/her), Program Manager for the Center for Climate, Health & Equity, at the American Public Health Association (APHA). Capper is a passionate advocate for environmental justice and works to ensure that everyone has access to the resources they need to understand and take action on climate change. She strives each day to create a more equitable and sustainable future. We asked her how she became interested in this career path, about the importance of bringing diverse voices to the table around public health, and about the intersection of climate policy and equity.
EES: For 150 years, the Washington, DC headquartered APHA has worked to strengthen the public health profession, promote best practices, and advocate for policies grounded in research. What first inspired you on your life journey that led to working here?
Capper: As a child, I always enjoyed spending time in nature — from walking my dog to traveling around the United States —but I always thought about the environmental impacts of all of our collective actions. Growing up near Philadelphia, I saw clear differences between my neighborhood and adjacent neighborhoods going into the city's borderline. There was a clear lack of access to green space, lack of investment in the community, and wealth gap in the Northern part of the city. These impressions stuck with me. I eventually pursued a Bachelor's degree in Environmental Studies and a Master of Public Health (MPH) in Occupational & Environmental Epidemiology so that I could make a difference in communities similar to where I previously lived.
EES: Will you please share why your personal background has been important to your work at the APHA?
Capper: As an Asian-American adoptee, I have experienced my own forms of stereotyping and prejudice. The world can perceive you in a way that you do not necessarily perceive yourself. I also recognize my own privileges, and I work to leverage that every day to help make an impact. I acknowledge diverse perspectives are essential to the conversation of climate and health, and this involves everyone, within a community and globally. We need to be able to understand the different ways that people experience climate change.
EES: Does that explain why your title encompasses the three aspects of climate, health, and equity?
Capper: Climate change will impact the health of everyone, but these health impacts will be greater in some groups than others. Low-income communities, communities of color, and Indigenous communities are more likely to experience the negative impacts of climate change due to a lack of investment, resources, and access to services. These communities are more likely to have experienced structural racism, air pollution, and other environmental hazards, when thinking about solutions and policy health equity should be prioritized.
EES: In your role as Program Manager, how do you create positive change?
Capper: I work within a team of three that collaborates on, manages, and supports projects that help build capacity in advocacy, education, workforce, and research focused on climate, health and equity. These projects include work with state and local-level APHA affiliates and non-profit public health associations. We recognize the most ambitious climate and health policy is being developed at the state and local level. As a national organization, APHA supports what happens on the ground and gives strategic guidance on how to engage with your policymakers.
Capper: We provide resources, trainings, webinars, and create spaces for environmental justice groups to connect and build meaningful relationships with scientific experts and public health professionals. We have a book club called ECO Bookworms that highlights children's books on climate action. Last year, we were able to books to teachers to incorporate into their class curriculum to get the conversation started. They break down the overwhelming topic of climate change, with the goal to empower our youth and prepare them for the future.
EES: What determines climate vulnerability?
Capper: There are three main factors. The first is the level of exposure, such as the severity and frequency of changes in climate experiences. These may include increases in droughts that lead to more wildfires and air pollution, as well as other extreme weather events like hurricanes, hotter temperatures, and increased flooding. The second factor is susceptibility — some groups are inherently vulnerable such as children and pregnant women, the aged and people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, while other groups are circumstantially vulnerable like outdoor workers. But often, those greatest at risk is the result of a lack of access to resources and power due to barriers like structural racism. Finally, adaptive capacity to prepare or mitigate climate effects will determine vulnerability.
EES: How are cities and states developing their own plans and programs to prepare for and reduce the impacts of climate change?
Capper: Many municipalities around the country are focusing on reducing greenhouse gas emissions through energy efficiency, renewable energy, and transportation initiatives. They are also investing in green infrastructure to provide a range of environmental, economic, and social benefits. For example, the Philadelphia Climate Action Playbook provides a comprehensive strategy to prepare for the impacts of climate change, with a goal of reducing emissions by 80% by 2050. It is important for cities and states to incorporate health equity when creating Climate Action Plans, policies, and implementing interventions.
EES: How can greater investment in public health benefit lower-served communities, specifically related to climate issues?
Capper: Public health professionals are in a great position to build relationships within their community and bring meaningful research forward to appropriately address concerns. We still see many people thinking and believing climate change won’t affect them, because they see climate change is only about stranded polar bears rather than messaging focused on human lives, families, and communities. The “doom and gloom” messaging deters engagement — but this trend has finally been changing. In fact, a study conducted by ecoAmerica and APHA found that more Americans are concerned about climate change than ever before. Public health professionals are elevating the conversation, advocating and implementing equitable solutions. We must continue to make it about the individuals’ and make people feel empowered to take climate action.
EES: Please share with us any final takeaways about the Center for Climate, Health & Equity.
Capper: The Center leads public health efforts to inspire action on climate and health, advance policy and galvanize the field to address climate change. And it will always justly address the needs of communities regardless of age, geography, race, income, gender or more. The APHA is the leading voice on the connection between climate and public health. I’d encourage you to visit our website where you find all our resources and sign up for our newsletter, so you are always aware of what we are up to and any new opportunities. Our vision for America is that climate change is treated as a national priority with broad political and social support. Join us in taking action for a healthier nation!