Profiles in Advocacy: Perry Sheffield

Perry Sheffield is a pediatrician at Mount Sinai and the Deputy Director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit. She has worked extensively on climate change and its relation to child health.

What advocacy issues are you involved in?

The advocacy issue that is closest to my heart is figuring out ways to reduce the health effects of climate change. One of the projects that I’m working on right now is with the Natural Resources Defense Council and one of their areas of focus is climate change. That’s really exciting work because their work is making science understandable to the public, to the policy makers and ultimately understandable to change-makers. So I’ve learned that I like those multi-disciplinary collaborations and that it takes that to do effective work.

Do you have any success stories? Any particular failures or successes you’ve learned from?

[During my fellowship], I chose to do a project that focused on children, asthma, ozone levels and climate change in NYC. It was basically an exercise in estimating what the future effect of climate change would be on those things in NYC. So it was like a projection exercise and when I finished the thesis I wrote it up as a manuscript and published it. I went to an American Public Health Association meeting and someone from the Union for Concerned Scientists said to me, “you know people are walking around Congress with your paper right now? They’re using it to help convince people that climate change is important”. I said, “no, but that’s very good!” The paper wasn’t earth shattering, but it was an example of taking some numbers that are out there, tools and climate models, and packaging it in an effective way to help tell the story and convince people that climate change isn’t just about the polar bears, the things that are far away, but it might be about, say, their grandchild. It helps make it more real, and thus it helps motivate people to do the right thing.

Is there any current legislation in the works that you have a stance on?

I feel like one of the most important pieces of public health legislation is the farm bill. I think it has significant impacts in terms of climate change but also in so many other ways. The farm bill is what directs the major subsidies towards agriculture and in the past that’s been the big five: corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and rice. It also does land conservation funding. It does food stamps. Indirectly, not only does it touch on hunger issues, it drives prices in markets. So literally in the grocery store in terms of the fact that high fructose corn syrup comes from such a subsidized crop, it makes the price of soda less than the price of orange juice, for example. In all of that, economics is tied up in how we eat and where we eat and how we source all of it. Food production is such a massive carbon footprint we could potentially, by shifting those subsidies around, supporting small farmers and local food sourcing, reduce the U.S. carbon footprint in terms of dietary choices, but simultaneously address the massive public health crisis of obesity.

What’s your advocacy pearl of wisdom?

My advice to professionals is to engage with people at all levels of training, because I think we can all learn from each other.