Climate Change

In this project we are highlighting the experiences of people whose lives are being affected by climate change.


Thalía Guzmán speaks with Adelita Cantu, an associate professor at UT Health San Antonio who teaches nursing students about the importance of looking into how their patient’s environment affects their health. As a nurse in San Antonio, Texas, Guzmán saw how climate change impacts impoverished neighborhoods in San Antonio — especially in the last decade.

Public health educator pushes for climate to be part of health care conversations

by | Sep 9, 2022

Adelita Cantu talks about the intersection between climate and health justice

by Thalía Guzmán | Next Generation Radio, Texas Newsroom | September 2022

Click here for audio transcript

Adelita Cantu:

I went into work in the hospital just like I was expected to do that. But I didn’t, I didn’t really find any joy in that. I didn’t really find any satisfaction in it. So I left that. And it was when I found a job in the community and working with an older population with developmental disabilities and then went to work in a health department. I really found my niche and I’ve never looked back. 

My name is Adelita Cantu. I am an associate professor at the U.T. Health Science Center, San Antonio School of Nursing. I’ve been here 20 years and most of my time has been working in population and public health and teaching students the theory as well as clinical experiences. 

From way back I started understanding because I was working with people in the community, particularly low income communities, people of color. I started understanding how things where we live, work and play impact our health. And a natural transition from that was understanding how climate change and the consequences of climate change impact health. And this has become much more crystallized to me in the last ten years. And I’ve been not only working on that to increase the awareness of the community relative to climate change, but health professionals are nursing students and why they need to understand these consequences as well, because it’s going to impact the patients they see in the hospital, in the clinics. And I don’t think it’s just nursing students. I think we all as we hear about climate change on the news and what will happen with climate change, what is happening right now, we don’t automatically make that connection to our health. 

So the nursing students, when they come to me, they’ve had previous knowledge, which is what they need about diseases in the disease process and really having the ability to increase their awareness that a person who has asthma may experience asthma triggers because they live near a plant, they live near where the emissions are really heavy and have that connection to that. 

So we asked students to do a simulation of where they live a month in poverty or paycheck to paycheck. So again, everything we talk about in public health, certainly poverty has an impact on that. But it’s not until they’re in that situation themselves, they can open up their eyes and okay, now I understand it becomes clearer with climate change issues. 

We’re working with kids in the community, low income communities that have been discharged from the hospital with asthma. We go into the homes and working with the parents about how to reduce their exposure to asthma triggers that we know climate change is impacting. The students are able to make that connection to the theory, to seeing how it plays out in the community and then working with the families to develop a plan on how to reduce our exposure to that. 

What I would tell myself, knowing what I do now, is patience and don’t think you know everything because the community is going to inform you. Listen, actively listen. We understand the disease like diabetes, asthma, as nurses. We understand it. And we may be experts on it, but we don’t understand the patients’ experience of it and understanding their experience of it will most times help you during that acute time because you need to understand the experience of it. Don’t think that we know everything.

While working at UT Health San Antonio as a nurse, Adelita Cantu said she learned that health care goes beyond the walls of hospitals and clinics. 

Cantu wanted to help people before they came to the hospital, so she became a public health educator who teaches future nurses not only about how to take vitals and administer medications, but also about the connection between climate change and health.

After spending two decades as a nurse at the medical center, Cantu became an assistant professor at the school’s nursing program. Since 2002, she’s been balancing working in the hospital and educating the next generation of nurses.

Cantu said it’s important to her that students understand the role climate change has in the well-being of communities. 

“Public health looks at everything in our environment, everything that surrounds us [has] an impact on our health,” Cantu said. “So nursing students, they need to be experts on treating people in the hospital, treating people in clinics, but also understand that there are other things in the environment that also impact that health state.”

Cantu is developing a curriculum focused on the intersection of the environment and health equity. Part of the course challenges students to evaluate the health disparities in impoverished neighborhoods in San Antonio.


Adelita Cantu sitting in her office at the UT Health Science Center School of Nursing on Sept. 4, 2022. Cantu teaches how climate change impacts health, especially in communities of color.


“Public health looks at everything in our environment, everything that surrounds us [has] an impact on our health. So nursing students, they need to be experts on treating people in the hospital, treating people in clinics, but also understand that there are other things in the environment that also impact that health state.”


Adelita Cantu holding a lab coat at a nursing school lab on Sept. 9, 2022. Cantu has been teaching at UT Health San Antonio for over 20 years.


Adelita Cantu is a professor at The UT Health San Antonio School of Nursing, located in the Medical Center in the Northwest of San Antonio, Texas. UT Health San Antonio was established in 1959.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, within the 2016-2020 period, around 14.2% of San Antonio residents lived in poverty, making the city the most impoverished major metropolitan area in the country. 

Cantu said impoverished areas tend to lack basic building blocks of neighborhoods, such as trees and walkable spaces. Trees are critical for healthy lifestyles, she said, because they filter carbon dioxide emissions, making the air safer to breathe. 

“Trees are not equitably distributed in the community,” Cantu said. “So therefore, people that do not have all the trees around them don’t have that natural mitigation strategy.”

She added that trees provide shade, which encourages people to spend more time outside taking walks and doing physical activities. 

“Everything in the community does impact patients and our people and their health,” Cantu said. 

Students are challenged to consider low-income salaries and create plans to take care and provide for a family. Cantu said students then realize how tight budgets and poor living conditions do not promote healthy living styles. 

“But it’s not until they’re in that situation themselves [when] they can open up their eyes and [say] ‘Okay, now I understand it becomes clearer with climate change issues,’” she said.

It’s also important to look into the disparities of communities’ air quality, Cantu said. 

Vulnerable communities, she said, are more likely to experience the most severe impacts of climate inequity. Impoverished neighborhoods tend to have poorer air quality, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, leading to higher rates of asthma triggers for children and seniors. 

One of her goals is to make an impact on city policy because she wants people to understand which issues contribute to climate change.

Adelita Cantu shows how to properly use a COVID-19 vaccine. Cantu was the first person in San Antonio, Texas to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.


“I think San Antonio is aware — and our policymakers certainly are aware — of these issues because we know we have a lot of economic segregation,” Cantu said. “There are people who lack many of the resources that can help them mitigate issues around climate change.”

Adelita Cantu storing medications in a pharmacy refrigerator inside a lab at UT Health San Antonio School on Sept. 5, 2022. Cantu has been working in the healthcare field for over 40 years.


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