Exploring the impacts of climate change on health and wellbeing: field lessons

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Roxanne Springer, PhD candidate

My name is Roxanne Springer. Just over 4 years ago, I began my PhD in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management (GEM), supported by funding from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship (QES) program. Prior to that, I completed a Masters in the Climate Change at the University of Waterloo. My interest in climate change, combined with a concern for the future wellbeing of populations in small island developing state (SIDS) in the Caribbean, led me to the Waterloo-Laurier Graduate Program in Geography.

My research investigates climate change impacts on wellbeing in Barbados, specifically exploring the association between climate change, wellbeing and non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

My objectives were to: 1) explore drivers and determinants of wellbeing important to Barbadians, and how these components affect vulnerability to the impacts of climate change; 2) investigate the knowledge and perceptions of health professionals across multiple scales on burden of non-communicable diseases in Barbados, and possible connections between climate change stressors and NCDs; and 3) investigate the policy responses to NCDs in Barbados, to assess the potential for the alignment of NCD and climate change adaptation policy agendas. To that end, I employed qualitative data collection methods—in-depth interviews with lay citizens, key-informant interviews with health professionals, and a document review to gather data. Having completed my data collection and analysis, I am now in the process of finalising my thesis for defence.
The research I conducted addresses two important global health issues, that of climate change and non-communicable diseases, both of which are considered to be among the greatest threats to health and wellbeing. While it was previously thought that the burden of NCDs was concentrated in high-income countries, current data show that the burden is greatest in low to middle income countries (LMICs). In the Caribbean, NCDs (strokes, heart disease, hypertensive diseases, diabetes and respiratory diseases) are the leading cause of mortality. At the same time, small island states in the Caribbean are considered among the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change. Yet despite these concerns, little has been done to investigate the associated harms between NCDs and climate change, and this is where my research contributes.
Informative advertising about climate change and health on a bus shelter in Barbados

A major takeaway from my field season, is the importance of on-the ground partners to facilitate data collection. These partners, be they individuals, institutions/organisations, are instrumental in providing introductions to key people, and lending support to get you through the doors of key-informants, who otherwise may be too busy to participate in your research. While it is possible to conduct research without partners, it is more difficult. A second takeaway is the need for flexibility as a researcher. We can write a fantastic research proposal, have the best research design and data collection tools, but circumstances beyond our control can completely upend plans. At times like these, flexibility is a vital skill for a researcher to have, be that having backup data collection methods to gather the data needed, or alternative participants/sources of data to get the information needed.

I feel incredibly fortunate to be at the forefront of this research area, and I am excited to share my findings with the academic community and those in industry.