How social work can help fight the impacts of climate change

Denver’s Lisa Reyes Mason leads a new generation of social workers in helping communities adapt to the climate crisis.

When Lisa Reyes Mason was doing her social work dissertation on water insecurity in the Philippines, she was often asked, “How is this social work?” Today, a decade later, with climate change rapidly transforming communities across the West, she is seen as a pioneer in her field. Not only does Mason see social work playing a critical role in confronting the climate crisis, she also believes the West has much to learn from places that have already taken steps to adapt to climate change. Her research in the Philippines, for example, found that many families, regardless of income, were already recycling their gray water — a practice that is just starting to gain traction in an increasingly water-starved West.  


In 2015, social work’s accrediting body added “environmental justice” to the competencies that all social workers in the U.S. must possess. Now, every graduate in the field has some knowledge of environmental justice issues and how these might interface with their work. Yet, as both the speed and scale of climate change and natural disasters accelerate, social workers are struggling to keep up with the impacts, especially on the already vulnerable communities that they tend to serve.

Lisa Reyes Mason is a biracial social worker, scholar and advocate for climate justice. On the faculty at the University of Denver, she is one of the leading researchers on how social work can both mitigate climate change and help communities adapt to its worst effects. HCN spoke with Mason on how social workers are helping communities cope with climate change, how their strategies are tailored to the political and ecological realities of the West, and where the field needs to go in the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lisa Reyes Mason, a social worker, scholar and advocate for climate justice. “Climate issues are increasingly showing up in practice,” she said.
Courtesy photo

High Country News: What made you interested in how social work can respond to climate change?

Lisa Reyes Mason: The general public thinks of social workers as primarily either caseworkers working in, say, the child welfare system, or as therapists. That’s the micro side of social work. Most of social work — about 80% — still is that, but at its core, social work is meant to be a profession that's about social justice and social change. It’s about what are the inequities in society, whether that’s racial or economic or other aspects of diversity or identity, and how we challenge those.

I got my master’s in social work about 20 years ago, and I was always on more on what we call the macro side of social work, focused on community economic development, poverty, aspects related to social justice. At the same time — that was in the early 2000s — I had this growing concern about climate change. My mom is Filipina, and she would tell stories of when she was a little girl in Manila, being rescued on the streets by her uncle during a typhoon, and how it was a once in 50-year event. But when I was growing up in the U.S. and following the news about the Philippines and our family back home, I saw it was way more often than every 50 years.

That’s when I decided to pivot to focusing on this nexus of social work, social justice and climate change. That was in 2008, and that’s where I’ve been ever since.

HCN: What are some of the ways that you’ve seen social work respond to climate change?

LRM: Climate issues are increasingly showing up in practice. For example, many social workers are noticing their clients are suffering more during extreme heat. They can’t pay their utility bills, or they’re making choices between their utility bills and putting food on the table.

In terms of response, some of it is what social workers in direct practice have always done, which is knowing what resources are available for folks: emergency utility funds, emergency food assistance and so on, and navigating with folks the bureaucracy of it all. We joke that you're a good social worker if you’re breaking the rules and finding the loopholes to get people what they need. Climate change and weather extremes amplify the demand for that.

Miguel Salinas waters the plants in his plot at the Eagle, Colorado, community garden in 2017 during an air quality health advisory for wildfire smoke in the area.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily via AP

They are also an added stressor on mental health. There’s increasing climate anxiety and eco grief. With increased disasters, there are more people experiencing stress, from mild stress on up to PTSD from surviving a disaster. That’s showing up across ages as well and calls for the therapeutic approaches many social workers are trained in.

There are also the physical health impacts. In the West, a clear example would be around wildfires and air pollution. At a direct practice level, social workers can help people navigate the health-care system. There’s also health education: Helping increase awareness about what the signs of heat stress are in the body, for example, might be part of the job of community based social workers.

At a higher policy level, there are some cities or states that have policy protections in place, such that, during an extreme event, utility companies are barred from disconnecting people for being overdue on their payments. Social workers could be part of influencing wider adoption of those policies.

HCN: How does either the training or the response of social workers in reacting to climate change vary across regions?

LRM: With direct practice, some of it is similar because the category of impacts are similar. For example, with flooding in the Southeastern U.S. or wildfire here in the West, both might have respiratory impacts. If your home gets flooded, you may not know there's latent mold and mildew contamination, or if you’re a renter, that your landlord hasn’t properly addressed or remediated those threats. So there’s this awareness of physical health impacts of different disasters that social workers who are visiting somebody in their home need to have.

Where things might differ by region is local and state politics. Some states are much more conservative where you wouldn’t even want to use the word climate change. You would just focus on access to health care, and leave climate change out of it.

Some states are much more conservative where you wouldn’t even want to use the word climate change. You would just focus on access to health care, and leave climate change out of it.

HCN: You co-created a master’s in social work (MSW) concentration in ecological justice at the University of Denver, which is the first of its kind in the U.S. Could you walk us through the vision of this concentration?

LRM: The concentration (was) meant to be “a mezzo” — or macro-level area of practice. It’s focused on policy analysis, systems thinking, power analysis and community engagement. We have our very first cohort now. Graduates might, for example, seek out a job in a conservation association focused on access to the natural environment, but historically, that has meant primarily for white people. Our graduates could infuse social justice thinking into that organization. More and more, cities also have some kind of climate justice office or environmental justice director. So those would be careers that our graduates could pursue.

HCN: Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency (CASR) steers Denver’s taxpayer-funded climate protection fund. With about $40 million annually, at least 50% of CASR’s budget is directed at addressing climate change while also advancing social and racial equity in the city. You served on CASR’s Sustainability Advisory Council, which advises the office on how the funds are used.

What do you think is the potential of an office like that to change how we respond to climate change?

LRM: There was many of us on the council who constantly spoke up around justice and the importance of that being a factor in the decision-making of CASR and where these funds were going. For example — this was already in motion when I served on the council — but the city of Denver was moving toward and has since adopted a pay-for-trash policy. I remember us asking, what is this going to cost lower income families? Is there going to be a waiver for those families? What is the cut-off point for the waiver? It’s important to make sure programs addressing climate change don’t hurt the already vulnerable.

Elise Myren, a 7th grade student, joins teachers and community supporters in protest outside of the Denver Public Schools administration building to demand equity for students attending classes in excessively hot classrooms in Denver, Colorado, on August 26, 2019.
Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

Another example would be the city’s rebate program for e-bikes, which really took off. But you have to pause and ask, who took advantage of it? Eventually, the city realized it could do a better job in reaching lower-income households who didn't have other transportation. They then changed some aspects of the program to address equity and access for lower income families.

An office like CASR offers an opportunity to invest in the minoritized communities most impacted by climate change, and in their ideas for what they need to respond. Even with “green jobs,” for example, it’s important to make sure those jobs go to, and also address, opportunities for people with lower incomes.

HCN: Where does social work as a whole need to go in regards to climate change?

LRM: For several years now, we in social work have been talking generally about environmental justice. And now it's like, “OK, heat wave — what do I need to know about that? What resources are available on climate anxiety in practice?” Many of our social workers, especially the ones in direct practice, need this kind of specific knowledge. They also need continuing education to keep their licenses, so there’s an opportunity there to create continuing education programs on these specific topics for folks.

On the macro side, climate change offers many nexus points for coalition building. A number of times, my daughter’s school here in Denver has closed due to extreme heat because the schools were built without air conditioning. What does that mean for young people, or for working parents when suddenly their kid is out of school? How does that intersect with paid leave policy? I hope that we start to realize that climate change isn't just this thing for environmentalists who are hiking all the time to be advocating about, but (that) it overlaps with our physical health, youth development, and so on.

Of course, you can’t ignore the complexity of all this. What I tell our students is drawn from a quote by the prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba: The fact that it’s so complex means there’s infinite possibilities for change.

Raksha Vasudevan is an economist and writer based in Denver. Her work has appeared in LitHub, The Los Angeles Review of Books, NYLON and more. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.