Dr. Laalitha Surapaneni and Virajita Singh of the University of Minnesota, and Jamez Staples, president of Renewable Energy Partners, are three Minnesotans of color who co-hosted at panel at the United Nations climate conference in Scotland. Credit: submitted images

As a young physician in the southeast Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, Dr. Laalitha Surapaneni treated day laborers who couldn’t cool off after a day’s work in the extreme heat. She saw the temperatures rising and the coastline eroding. 

“I could see the changes in the environment that were hurting our health,” Surapaneni said. 

Today, Surapaneni is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota and a practicing physician at M Health Fairview hospital, where she has spent much of the past 18 months treating COVID patients. This week, she’s in Glasgow, Scotland, as part of the university’s delegation to the 26th Conference of the Parties, the annual United Nations conference on climate change. The summit brings together delegations from more than 200 nations and more than 20,000 activists, diplomats, and researchers. President Joe Biden and other world leaders will appear there, as well. 

Greenhouse gas emissions from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels (such as oil, natural gas, and coal) create an unstable climate by warming the planet. Researchers call for limiting global warming to less than a 1.5 degrees Celsius rise from pre-industrialized levels to maintain a relatively stable climate. Achieving that goal will require a transition to clean energy sources such as geothermal, solar, and wind energy. 

The conference is producing large commitments. More than 100 nations pledged to halt deforestation by 2030, and more than 40—with the notable exception of the United States and China—pledged to stop using coal

Surapaneni said banning all new fossil fuel infrastructure is key to reducing pollution and improving health outcomes. 

“I want to amplify the message that climate action is public health action,” she said. 

A Minnesota panel at a global conference

Surapaneni is one of three Minnesotans of color who discussed the creation of an equitable, carbon-free future in a panel at the global climate summit in Scotland. The group emphasized the importance of ground level solutions, cross-cultural collaboration, and organizing in order to adapt to a warming planet. 

Surapaneni and fellow University of Minnesota instructor Virajita Singh joined north Minneapolis solar entrepreneur and clean jobs advocate Jamez Staples for a panel hosted by the nonprofit Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. The hour-long discussion, “Designing an equitable, carbon free future in Minnesota and the Midwest,” drew well over 100 delegates from around the globe.

“Climate change requires us to redesign everything,” said Singh, who teaches sustainable design and architecture, and also works in the diversity and inclusion office at the University of Minnesota.  

The three panelists come from different disciplines. Singh studies the way buildings and design can create greener, healthier environments. Surapaneni is a medical doctor who organized against the Line 3 oil pipeline that crosses northern Minnesota. Staples is the founder and president of Renewable Energy Partners, a solar company. 

But adapting to climate change will demand working across disciplines and across international borders, they said. 

Staples launched his solar company in 2014, seeing opportunities in a growing field and a chance to help reduce the large economic disparities between people of color and white Minnestoans. His company has installed community solar gardens such as the 365-kilowatt site on top of North High in Minneapolis. 

He is also the driving force behind the North Minneapolis Clean Energy Training Center, which will open in 2022 on Plymouth Avenue. The center will provide hands-on training for green jobs such as solar installers, energy-efficiency auditors, and specialists in energy-efficient construction. Having a training center in communities of color will help ensure more people can benefit from clean energy jobs, Staples says. The project received funding from the Minnesota Legislature last session. 

“My mission is to make sure we have equity built in from the bottom up,” Staples said.  

Participating in a global conference is a big deal, Staples said, but he hopes that amid all the high-level discussions on reducing emissions, the delegations can find time to plan for ground-level implementation. 

With increasingly dire warnings from the scientific community, and the increase in major weather events due to climate change, it can be easy to lose hope and overlook progress. But Singh, the design professor, said she leans toward optimism. The problem can be addressed, but only through true cooperation and decisive action.  

 “We need to trust in our capacity to innovate, but at the same time we have to be honest and have integrity,” she said.    

As a doctor, Laalitha Surapaneni sees her role as bluntly labeling fossil fuel pollution as a health detriment to humankind. “If I have a patient with emphysema, I don’t tell them to smoke filtered cigarettes; I tell them to quit smoking. And it’s the same with our climate.”

Surapaneni said academics need to find where their expertise can contribute to fighting climate change. As a doctor, she sees her role as bluntly labeling fossil fuel pollution as a health detriment to humankind. 

“If I have a patient with emphysema, I don’t tell them to smoke filtered cigarettes; I tell them to quit smoking. And it’s the same with our climate,” she said. 

International perspective 

In her career as a doctor and public health student, Surapaneni has attended plenty of conferences. But the United Nations climate summit is unique. “This has truly been a working conference,” she said.

Despite having grown up in India, Surapaneni still finds herself experiencing an America-centric vision of the world at times. She knew climate change posed a drastic threat to island nations such as Fiji and Barbados. But hearing from delegates who represent those countries has amplified her understanding of the challenges they face.

One of the panels Surapaneni attended examined how we can adapt  to a warming planet and rising sea levels. Surapaneni was struck by lessons the United States can learn from developing nations. Through her work organizing against Line 3, she became more attentive to the practices and rights of Indigenous people, such as the importance of preserving environments like the Mississippi River headwaters where Native people access wild rice. In Glasgow, she’s seeing more global recognition for the need to center Indigenous perspectives and sustainable practices. 

She hopes to put public health and environmental justice on the front line of the global effort to reduce emissions, and said world leaders should not waiver from their emission reduction targets. 

“This is the time to be ambitious,” Surapaneni said. 

Andrew Hazzard is a reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew returned...