November 2023 Champion

Earl Stewart, Jr., M.D.

Climate change is nothing new to Dr. Earl Stewart, Jr.; he grew up with it. But how he responds now is different because the Medical Society Consortium’s Climate and Health Equity Fellowship is helping him to chart his path.

The fellowship, launched in 2021, empowers doctors of color to become leaders in climate and health equity education, advocacy, and policy solutions. Dr. Stewart, an internal medicine specialist with Wellstar Primary Care in Atlanta, is part of the current class.

Dr. Stewart is a native of Augusta, the home of the Masters golf tournament. But his was not the country club world. He grew up in the inner city. “We’re the city that cleans up very well around Masters time,” Dr. Stewart says. Otherwise — floods, air pollution, and chemical plant contamination, all simmering in a stew of climate change.

“I experienced everything I’m learning about in this fellowship,” Dr. Stewart says. “Not only climate change — environmental injustice.”

What he felt he lacked was the coherent structure to mesh climate change and environmental injustice. “I think it’s always been around me,” Dr. Stewart says. “I never knew how to articulate what I was experiencing — what my family members were experiencing.”

The fellowship includes seminars, skill-building activities, and webinars. It covers the crucial aspects of climate change as it pertains to medicine and public health, including extreme heat, mental health, transportation, clean energy, and patient and community resilience. It also gives participants training and practice in outreach, such as responding to policy and regulatory actions, and in developing their personal capacities to spread the knowledge they gain, such as through presentations and media messaging. “It takes a body of knowledge,” Dr. Stewart says. “It takes understanding.”

Training programs such as the fellowship need to be expanded, Dr. Stewart says. “There’s not enough physicians who know about this.”

Dr. Stewart says his patients with chronic respiratory conditions “have an inkling” that climate change is making their conditions worse, but they need the kind of knowledge that doctors who have been through the fellowship program can provide. The fellowship requires each participant to create a capstone project. In his project, he has been creating patient education material in partnership with his health system and electronic health record company, Epic. He says his patients have been receptive. “People have an undertone of knowledge that something’s different,” he says. “I can share resources.”