Published in partnership with Forbes
- Healthcare has a mission-driven mandate to reduce its own carbon pollution and and invest its purchasing power in “climate positive” energy sources, to drive our entire economy toward a more sustainable future, reduce our rising disease burden and reduce our spiraling healthcare costs.
- Our hospitals and clinics need to be resilient and self-sufficient by prepare for health impacts of climate change as well as be able to continue operations to administer to the sick and wounded during extreme weather events.
- In the global campaign to kick our addiction to fossil fuels and toxic chemicals, doctors, nurses, and other health care workers need to be powerful spokespeople for policies that understand the true cost of a fossil fuel-based economy and support the transition to a renewable energy and toxic free future.
As we continue to learn more about climate change, we are realizing it is fundamentally a health issue that will affect everyone in the world. How it is damaging to our health depends on where we live. If we live in Beijing or Baton Rouge, climate change looks like air that’s so thick and poisoned we can’t go outside of our homes. If we live in the Midwest of the United States, climate change looks like extreme weather that rages through our communities and heat waves that destroy our crops and cause heat exhaustion. If we live in New York City, climate change looks like a massive hurricane, which flooded our streets, trapped us in homes with no power and shut down our hospitals. For many communities living downwind from coal power plants, processes that affect climate change are more local and look like increased asthma in our children and respiratory disease in our most vulnerable citizens. We are learning that climate change is already leading to the spread of mosquito- and other vector-borne infectious diseases like Dengue fever and malaria to places that have never seen these diseases before. We are learning it’s not possible to support people on a sick planet.
In this unfolding crisis, the healthcare sector occupies a unique position in our society to admit its contribution to the problem and to lead the fight against climate change.
First, healthcare is just as addicted to fossil fuels as the rest of us, if not more so. Hospitals use twice as much energy per square foot as our schools and offices, partly because of the intensity of their business, partly because of lack of focus to be less wasteful. Health care is a major polluter. Given that health care is underpinned by an ethical imperative to ‘First, Do No Harm”, it has a responsibility to reduce all of its pollution and lead our society toward renewable energy, energy efficient products, local and sustainable food systems, safer chemicals and other mitigation efforts that support healthier people in healthier communities. Healthcare represents 18% of our entire economy and is growing. If we can harness the purchasing power of this critical sector and invest in ”climate positive” energy sources, we can drive our entire economy toward a more sustainable future. This low carbon development path will simultaneously reduce our rising disease burden and reduce our spiraling healthcare costs.
Second, we need to get better prepared for climate change impacts in our communities. Our hospitals and clinics need to be resilient and self-sufficient. They need to help us prepare for the coming storm as well as administer to the sick and wounded during extreme weather events. They should be the last buildings standing in a hurricane rather than one of the first to go down. If hospitals have reliable on-site power, they can continue to provide critical care to patients even if the grid is down for days. The good news is that on-site power can make hospitals more energy efficient, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and saves the hospitals money. Toward this end, we have built a global coalition for Healthier Hospitals that is accelerating the adoption of sustainable and climate friendly practices and saving hospitals money in the process.
Third, healthcare professionals are some of the most trusted spokespeople in our society. When our society was addicted to tobacco, nurses and doctors were the first to recognize the dangers; they banned cigarettes from hospitals and educated their patients about the dangers of tobacco. In the global campaign to kick our addiction to fossil fuels and toxic chemicals, doctors, nurses, and other health care workers need to be powerful spokespeople for policies that understand the true cost of a fossil fuel-based economy and support the transition to a renewable energy and toxic free future. There are five million health care workers in America. We can collaborate with them to become climate champions in our communities for local climate solutions as well as critical spokespeople at the local, state, national and global levels for actions, laws, and treaties to rein in climate change.
In this next period of our collective history, we will need to redefine what health care is for. It can no longer be exclusively focused on treating chronic disease in individual patients within the walls of a clinic or hospital. Health care needs to clean up its own system and live its mission to address the environmental and social conditions that are making people sick in the first place. Health care needs to lead the fight against climate change. It is our best remedy to this global health emergency.