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Health care organizations, practitioners collaborate on push for climate-smart health care

Environment, Health

Whether it’s illness due to more extreme heat or increased asthma attacks because of polluted air, the impacts of climate change are already hurting people’s physical and mental health in many ways.

However, some are hit harder than others – low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately at risk due to existing social, economic and health inequities. We all have a role to play in solving the problem, and by working together, we can shift policies and practices, drive systemic change and create a more just planet for everyone.

In the U.S., the health care sector alone is responsible for 8.5 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with hospitals generating more than one-third of those emissions.

By implementing changes, health care facilities can decrease greenhouse gas emissions while reducing operating costs and promoting resiliency. Health care can also leverage its enormous purchasing power, 18% of U.S. GDP, to help decarbonize the supply chain, the largest portion of the sector’s carbon footprint.

Progress is possible. To proactively tackle this public health threat, national organizations like The Kresge Foundation’s Climate Change, Health & Equity initiative grantees Health Care Without Harm and the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health are collaborating with partners across the country to advocate for climate solutions and the transition to a low-carbon, resilient and equitable health system.

Promising policy opportunities

The Biden-Harris administration came into office this year with four priorities: COVID-19, climate, race and the economy.

What do these all have in common? They all relate to our health, said Jessica Wolff., U.S. director of climate and health for Health Care Without Harm.

And when it comes to our nation’s health, there’s no time to waste. Regarding climate, right away the administration established two new White House positions: the special envoy for climate, and the national climate advisor. It directed the Department of Health and Human Services to create an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCHHE) and establish an interagency task force to assess the impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable populations. Created in August 2021, OCHHE is the first office of its kind at the national level to address climate change and health equity.

In April 2021, the president announced a new goal to reduce U.S. emissions by 50-52 percent by 2030 and reach net zero emissions economy-wide by no later than 2050. The President also created the Justice40 initiative, an effort to make good on President Biden’s promise to deliver at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from Federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.

Meeting these commitments means that every agency within government must pitch in and play a role in creating actionable solutions that links climate change to the health, welfare, and economic security of the country.

Taking this whole of government approach at the highest level has created new opportunities for change, particularly when it comes to health care, Wolff said.

For example, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services sets requirements that hospitals and health providers must meet to receive federal funding and could start including environmental impacts and climate readiness into its conditions for participation.

The other big opportunity for the federal government is to set emissions reductions and purchasing standards for their own facilities all around the country, including more than 150 Veterans Administration Medical Centers.

“By setting the standard for operating those facilities and directing their purchasing power, they have the opportunity to move the needle for the sector,” Wolff said.

To help inform policymakers and administration officials, Health Care Without Harm:

“Prior to this administration, HHS primarily worked on climate and health through a small program in the CDC,” said Antonia Herzog associate director, partnerships, advocacy and equity at Health Care Without Harm. “Now with the Biden Administration’s whole-of-government approach the agency is starting to integrate climate change into all aspects of their work,  and are reaching out to experts in climate, health and equity.”

Fortunately, there are policies that can reduce carbon pollution and decrease health threats at the same time, said Dr. Mona Sarfaty, executive director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health.

Energy generation and transportation are the two largest sources of greenhouse gases, Sarfaty said.

“By reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and moving to clean sources like wind and solar power, we can reduce the damage to our atmosphere and clean up the air we breathe,” Sarfaty said.

Sarfaty emphasized that it’s important that policies that reduce pollution must ultimately benefit those whose health is most affected by it – communities of color and people with low incomes.

The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health brings together associations representing more than 600,000 clinical practitioners to help ensure that the health risks of climate change and the health benefits of climate solutions, especially clean energy, are clearly understood by their colleagues and by policymakers.

“The voices of America’s medical societies have the potential to help reframe the dialogue – putting human health and wellbeing front and center in the conversation,” Sarfaty said.

As part of its efforts, the Consortium’s network of advocates communicates frequently with their representatives in Congress about policy proposals addressing climate, health, and equity. Learn more about tools, educational resources and information to take action here.

A different moment

Wolff, Herzog and Sarfaty all agreed that this moment feels different than in years past.

This is a moment of incredible opportunity, Wolff said.

That’s because the president and a majority of both houses of Congress recognize the reality of climate change and are seeking to do something about it, Sarfaty said.

The American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in March 2021 contained significant provisions to address the climate crisis, including $350 billion to support state and local governments; $30.5 billion in funding to public transit agencies; $4.5 billion in home energy assistance for households with low incomes; and $50 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for environmental justice initiatives.

While it remains to be seen what lies ahead for future legislative packages that will help tackle the climate crisis, in the meantime, there is a lot that the administration can do internally in terms of standards and regulations, Herzog noted.

“The good news is that the health and equity pieces are better understood and integrated and are getting folded in everywhere,” Herzog said.

And not only do policymakers have a better understanding, more and more people in the health care community are also making the connection between climate change, health and equity, and willing to make the changes needed.

In 2020, Providence, a large health system with 52 hospitals in seven states, announced its plans to become carbon negative by 2030.

Nearly 20 health systems have joined Health Care Without Harm’s Health Care Climate Council, a leadership body of health systems committed to protecting their patients and employees from the health impacts of climate change and becoming anchors for resilient communities. Health Care Climate Council members implement innovative climate solutions, inspire and support others to act, and use their trusted voice and purchasing power to move policy and markets to drive the transformation to climate-smart health care.

Last year, the National Academies of Medicine announced a new Grand Challenge on Human Health & Climate Change — a multiyear strategic initiative focused on developing a long-term roadmap for transforming systems; mobilizing the health community to reduce the sector’s environmental impact and fostering innovative solutions.

“It’s a virtuous reinforcing cycle,” Wolff said. “I’ve never been more optimistic about potential transformation of the healthcare sector than I am right now.”

State and local support

“Preparedness is local,” Wolff said.

To make sure communities around the country are ready and resilient, the federal government needs to ensure that there are climate resources and guidance available at the local, regional and state levels, and health systems need to be at the table with municipalities.

Information is key, Sarfaty said.

“People don’t always know about efforts to address the health threats of climate change and what they can do at the local level to protect themselves. Sharing these successes more broadly will help everyone move forward,” Sarfaty said.

In addition, Wolff said, new curriculums are needed in medical schools, nursing, health care administration, pharmacy and public health programs to make sure that the next generation of professionals are prepared for what’s coming.

“The world is going to be a very different place. It’s important to ensure that health care workers are trained and part of the vision of the climate conversation and public health infrastructure,” Wolff said. “Climate solutions are health solutions.”