Social workers strive to make the world a better place to live. Recently social workers have realized that this mandate applies to the natural world as well, and the profession has entered the climate change movement.
This guide on the role of social work in climate resilience and environmental justice will explore the definitions of climate change, environmental justice, and climate resilience. It will identify the role that social workers play in the environmental movement, including the ways that social workers in all capacities feel the impact of climate change and how it can be addressed at all levels of practice.
IN THIS GUIDE
- What is climate change?
- What is environmental justice?
- Role of social work
- Climate resilience
- Where will I work?
- Certification and training
- Salary ranges
- Career outlook
In fact, in 2020, The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) joined sixteen other organizations including the American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, Climate Psychology Alliance, and many others to form the Social Climate Leadership Group.
The group was created to “…to accelerate consensus, action, and attention regarding how climate and widespread ecological change will:
- markedly escalate mental illness and social and emotional damage
- make it that much harder to address already formidable, unmet, mental health needs
- endanger and also underscore the critical need for emotional resilience, social ties, and civic capacity to act on and respond to climate and ecological change.”
However the reality is that social work has been dealing with environmental issues from the very beginning. One of the key tenets of social work that sets us apart from other fields is the focus on the person in the environment. The relationship to the natural environment has not traditionally been considered in this context, but has become an important addition in recent years.
In a sense, social workers have always been addressing the environmental needs of clients. For example, a caseworker who learns that their clients are living in a “sick building” might help them to find new housing. Disaster social workers help clients deal with the impacts of weather patterns or environmental accidents.
The populations that social workers serve are among the most vulnerable. These groups are disproportionately impacted by climate change. Addressing this issue is the role of ecological justice. In 2015, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) added environmental justice to its list of nine core competencies that schools must address to achieve accreditation.
At the same time the CSWE also launched the Committee on Environmental Justice to “… explore the history of ‘green’ social work, current work on environmental social work, and social work practice related to environmental issues.” The goal of the committee is to use this research to “…make recommendations … about how social work education should consider integrating issues of environmental justice into the social work curriculum.”
What is climate change?
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Climate change involves significant changes in average conditions—such as temperature, precipitation, wind patterns, and other aspects of climate—that occur over years, decades, centuries, or longer.”
According to the United Nations (UN), the temperature of the earth has risen 1.1 degrees celsius/1.8 degrees fahrenheit since the end of the late nineteenth century. The decade of 2011 through 2020 was the warmest on record.
The impact of even such seemingly moderate increases in temperature can be devastating. The effects can be seen in increased flooding and increased drought, more frequent and larger wildfires, and more frequent and stronger weather such as hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves, and winter storms and frigid temperatures.
What is environmental justice?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “…the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) defines environmental justice as “…when all people equally experience high levels of environmental protection and no group or community is excluded from the environmental policy decision-making process, nor is affected by a disproportionate impact from environmental hazards. Environmental justice affirms the ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, respect for cultural and biological diversity, and the right to be free from ecological destruction. This includes responsible use of ecological resources, including the land, water, air, and food.”
It is important to note that the term applies not only to people who are impacted by climate change, but also to people who have been exposed to man-made ecological damage. For example, contamination of natural resources such as air, land and water can be tied to industrial pollution. Agricultural practices have contributed to significant ecological damage such as deforestation, desertification, loss of crop diversity, and toxic levels of chemicals in our food.
We are all aware of the devastation that oil spills and nuclear disasters wreak on the health and well-being of people, animals, and the environment. Furthermore, improper waste disposal has led to, among other issues, the leaching of chemicals into the soil from e-waste; and the great pacific garbage patch, where the accumulation of plastic in the ocean has created an island of plastic that is twice the size of Texas and three times the size of France. These events also have severe consequences on the surrounding communities.
Too often, the most vulnerable populations are the ones most adversely impacted by environmental disasters. People living in poverty, older adults, children, people experiencing mental illness, the BIPOC community, agricultural workers, and people who live in developing countries are disproportionately affected by environmental disasters.
Social workers, who are often the professionals on the ground working with these communities, play an integral role in addressing environmental injustice.
As the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) states, “While the climate crisis impacts all of us, those who are marginalized or oppressed are experiencing it to an even greater extent, creating climate injustice for people and our planet. Much of the burden of unsustainable consumption patterns has fallen disproportionately on the most vulnerable people in the world, who typically have the smallest consumption patterns. In addition, these vulnerable people receive fewer of the benefits of the environmental resources. These collective patterns of unsustainable consumption contribute to the climate crisis, making it a global justice issue for people and the planet, this is known as climate injustice.”
These problems have contributed to a new kind of refugee, the climate refugee. Although this term is not yet officially recognized, those who work with the refugee community have noticed a rise in the number of people who have been forced from their homes not for political reasons, but because their land was threatened by environmental disasters and had become uninhabitable.
In fact, in 2018 a World Bank report on Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America found that without decisive action aimed at reducing and redressing climate change, by the year 2050, 143 million people from these regions will be forced to leave their homes as a result of climate change. The report finds that “[t]he poorest and most climate vulnerable areas will be hardest hit.”
Furthermore, data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) shows that in 2020 about 75 percent of new displacements within the same country were due to disaster.
Unfortunately, although their needs are just as great, at this time climate refugees do not have access to the same resources as political refugees.
Role of social work
There is a clear link between environmental work and social work. Social workers are trained to be problem solvers and change agents. Social work skills in mediation, relationship building, and collaboration are pivotal in environmental work. Social workers have the skills to bridge the gap between scientific knowledge and human behavior.
Furthermore, two core tenets of social work provide a unique perspective on human interaction that work well in the climate movement. These are the person-in-environment perspective and a commitment to starting where the client is. Green social work includes an additional foundational skill, which is to consider the natural environment.
In terms of climate change and environmental justice, it is clear that not everyone is at the same starting point. Social workers know that the best way to effect change is to acknowledge the client’s perspective and move forward from that position. By understanding the context this position comes from through a systems, person- in- environment lens, social workers can help their clients identify the cause of the problems and move towards a solution that the client can invest in, making it easier to bear the discomfort of change.
The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare has proposed 12 Grand Challenges for the profession to address. One of the challenges is to “create social responses to a changing environment.”
The explanation of the challenge highlights the role of social work in addressing climate change and environmental justice:
“The environmental challenges reshaping contemporary societies pose profound risks to human well-being, particularly for marginalized communities. Climate change and urban development threaten health, undermine coping, and deepen existing social and environmental inequities. A changing global environment requires transformative social responses: new partnerships, deep engagement with local communities, and innovations to strengthen individual and collective assets.”
Social workers at all levels of practice can work to address these issues. This holds true on all levels, from micro work with individuals, groups and families to implement practical strategies to address their immediate needs, through mezzo work with community engagement and organizing, to the macro level of institutional and policy change and research. Without an understanding of the reasons for the positions of all parties, solutions will be difficult to identify and implement.
The Grand Challenge identifies three types of involvement that roughly correspond to these levels. At the macro level, “mitigation” is aimed at limiting “the rate or magnitude of environmental changes.” Here is where social workers can play a role in policy and advocacy to limit further environmental damage and eliminate environmental injustice.
At the mezzo level, “adaptation” includes planning responses in advance of negative environmental impact both for situations that are likely to arise and existing situations that may worsen. It is here that social workers can help to build “climate resilience” through improving coping capacity on a community scope.
At the micro level,“treatment” involves addressing the immediate physical and mental health needs of individuals during and after an environmental event. Here is where social workers use their case management and counseling skills to work with the individual needs of their clients.
The Grand Challenge identifies four specific areas where social workers can exercise a leading role in addressing the human impacts of environmental change: (1) disaster preparedness and response; (2) population dislocation; (3) community-level organizing and development aimed at strengthening local and regional capacity to respond to global environmental change, particularly in urban settings; and (4) mitigation (i.e., targeted policy), advocacy, and practice engagement in addressing the underlying causes of environmental change.
The term climate resilience refers to the strategies used to combat the effects of environmental damage. The Grand Challenge refers to this process as mitigation, as discussed above.
There are several resources available to assist social workers in this process from programs such as the World Resources Institute (WRI), the United States Global Change Research Program, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just to name a few.
When considering strategies to use to effect positive outcomes, it can be helpful to remember success stories of the past. For example, the BBC has put together a list of “The environmental disasters we’ve almost fixed.”
They explore the steps taken by the international community to reduce the occurrence and consequences of these environmental crises. They also identify lessons learned that can be implemented to the current climate crisis.
The success stories in progress include the reduction of acid rain, the elimination of lead in gasoline, and holes in the ozone layer. The solutions include cooperation, rapid implementation, raising public awareness,and effective communication from the scientific community to individuals, industry and governments.
Where will I work?
As outlined above, all social workers can make a difference to the climate movement.
For instance, private practice clinicians can educate themselves about climate anxiety and the impact of climate change and environmental injustice on mental health and well-being, and bring climate awareness into their sessions with their clients. They can also educate themselves about the benefits of spending more time in nature including a decrease in stress and anxiety.
Case managers can ensure that the voices of their clients who are impacted by environmental issues are heard. They can both advocate for their clients and assist them in advocating for themselves, by helping them get involved in community planning meetings addressing issues such as zoning and policy.
Hospital social workers can help families find the equipment they need to mitigate the impacts of environmental damage to the health of their clients such as asthma and cancer.
Disaster relief workers can help clients with fewer resources access the same services that are available to others, such as transportation, medical care, food, and housing.
Program directors can provide advocacy and access for their clients to address the environmental injustice in their local environment.
Advocates and lobbyists can work with community and business leaders and government officials to make policy changes for a cleaner, more just environment.
So a social worker in any position will find themselves face to face with climate issues and have many opportunities to effect change.
With that said, there are some places of work that will have a more direct role. These include
- Community Action Groups
- Lobby Organizations
- Advocacy groups
- Health and wellness programs
- Emergency management agencies
What will I do?
- Disaster preparedness and relief
- Case management
- Emergency management
- Resource management
- Sustainability Management
- Sustainability Consulting
- Corporate Social Responsibility
- Environmental Awareness
- Public Administration
- Coordinate multidisciplinary initiatives with professionals in science, technology, engineering, public health, urban planners, etc. to address the issues of environmental injustice and climate change.
Certificates and special training
Many social work programs have started to offer tracks in environmental justice and green social work. Additional independent certificates are also available, such as this post-graduate certificate in environmental justice and social work from The Institute for Social Work and Environmental Justice (ISWEJ).
Licensed clinical social workers can register with the Climate Psychology Alliance to become a “climate aware therapist.” The Ecopsychology Initiative offers a certificate in ecotherapy, a branch of psychology that recognizes the impact that time spent in nature has on mental health.
Additionally, there are several programs offering continuing education credits relating to green social work, climate resilience, environmental justice, etc. The Climate Psychology Alliance and the Climate Psychiatry Alliance are two groups that offer such programs.
Salary ranges for environmental social workers
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2020 the median annual salary for social workers was $51,760. The lowest ten percent earned less than $33,020, while the highest ten percent earned more than $85,820. The BLS projects that the job market for social workers will increase by twelve percent between 2020 and 2030. This is higher than the average projected increase of eight percent over the same period.
Ziprecruiter reports that climate change jobs range in salary from $19,000 to $134,500 per year with an average salary of $61,290.
According to Ziprecruiter, advocacy jobs range in salary between $15,000 and $125,000 per year with an average salary of $55,398.
According to Ziprecruiter sustainability consultant jobs range in salary from $21,500 to $170,000 per year with an average salary of $80,272 per year.
According to Ziprecruiter, the salary for corporate social responsibility jobs ranges from $27,000 to $98,500 per year with an average salary of $62,085.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual salary for environmental scientists and specialists is $73,230 with the lowest 10% earning less than $42,960 and the highest 10% earning more than $129,450.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that medical and health services managers earn a median salary of $102,280 with the lowest 10% earning less than $59,980 and the highest 10% earning $195,630.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the job market for environmental scientists and specialists is projected to increase by eight percent between 2020 and 2030. This is equivalent to the average projected increase of eight percent for all jobs over the same period.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the job market for medical and health services managers will increase by thirty two percent between 2020 to 2030. This is much higher than the average projected increase of eight percent for all jobs.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the job market for all social workers is projected to grow by twelve percent between 2020 and 2030. This is higher than the average projected increase of eight percent for all jobs.
Green social work profile
For an example of green social work in action at the mezzo level consider how the director of a local community program for at-risk youth can make an impact.
The director has noticed that there is a lack of greenspace in the area. With an understanding of the benefits of greenspace, they start a community garden program.
They have also noticed a troubling pattern of health problems facing the youth they serve. Further research into these issues has shown the director that the high levels of asthma they see in their clients is directly related to pollution from a nearby factory.
The director calls for a meeting with parents and community leaders. They reach out to their local city council politician to hold the factory accountable for addressing the unacceptable levels of pollutants in the air.
They hold trainings for the case managers to learn about mitigation strategies that their clients can put into place immediately. These include finding donations of air purifiers for their clients’ homes, increasing access to healthy green space, and addressing the impacts on their clients’ mental health and well-being.
The director arranges for visits with health specialists specializing in asthma prevention and mitigation strategies. The director also reaches out to other local organizations and community leaders and forms a coalition that tackles the issue of pollution on a wider scale, working their way through their local level of government to the state and federal level.
They arrange for legal consultations for families whose health and livelihood have been negatively impacted by the pollution.
The director works with the case managers to assist clients who want to move to a safer environment to find alternative housing. They also work with local architects to see if there is any way to retrofit the current living situations of their clients to improve the health of their homes.
The director develops a method to track the impact that these actions have on their clients and the community. They present these findings to policy makers and business leaders. They also share these methods with directors of other community level programs.
This is just one example of how social workers, armed with ed with the skills and knowledge of green social work combined with their traditional social work background, can make a difference in the climate change and environmental justice arena.