There is no sugarcoating this. As temperatures soar and weather patterns shift as a result of burning fossil fuels, the human body will be bombarded by challenges caused by severe heat, pollution, pathogen spread and wildfires. The World Health Organization estimates that climate change will kill 5 million people between 2030 and 2050 from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. By 2100, climate change will have caused 83 million excess deaths.
We have the knowledge and technology to limit the rise in temperature, but so far we have failed. At our current rate of warming, Earth’s average temperature will exceed the 1.5° C threshold established in the 2015 Paris Agreement by 37% in 2030 and 103% in 2040.
This stark reality poses an urgent call to action for the healthcare sector to elevate its climate leadership over the next 10–20 years. This means not only training medical residents on climate-related diseases, but also drastically reducing the carbon footprint of the medical field.
Climate change is one of the greatest threats to health America has ever faced—a true public health emergency
The American Medical Association and the American Academy of Nursing
report by the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health concludes that the health costs of air pollution and climate change already exceed $800 billion per year, a price tag that is expected to rise. With 12% of the world’s population already spending at least 10% of their household budgets on healthcare, the additional pressures of climate change will push more people into poverty each year.
Climate change will worsen existing disparities in healthcare resources and accessibility, and exacerbate psychological stress, racism and other forms of discrimination. Those who are most vulnerable—children, seniors, residents of developing countries, and people living below the poverty line—will suffer the most. These groups:
- bear the greatest burdens of air pollution and have the least access to healthcare
- are more likely to live in areas vulnerable to climate change
- have higher levels of existing health risks to begin with
- live in communities with limited access to healthcare services
- have a limited ability to relocate or rebuild after a disaster.
The healthcare sector is largely unaware of and unprepared to respond to climate-related impacts on patients and communities. A New England Journal of Medicine survey of healthcare professionals both in the US and the rest of the world showed that less than a quarter of clinicians and clinical leaders had high recognition of the health impacts of climate change. Nearly 50% of global health executives had little or no recognition of these impacts.
Medical and business schools are beginning to include the effects of climate change in their curricula.
- A 2020 paper published in Academic Medicine—and written by physicians across leading medical schools— proposed the first framework for educating residents about the implications of climate change for delivering healthcare.
- Harvard has launched Climate MD, a program that focuses on the healthcare effects of climate change.
- Emory School of Medicine has made climate change a formal part of its curriculum.
From the doctor’s office to the boardroom to the chambers of Congress, healthcare leaders and policymakers will need to understand the impending impacts of climate change on our health and society. Look for a new subspecialty in climate change medicine, more healthcare companies advocating for strong climate policies and climate change discussions in investor calls.
Hospitals and healthcare providers face a looming onslaught of illnesses and emergencies related to climate change. As temperatures rise, tropical pathogens previously unseen in temperate zones will present caregivers with unprecedented challenges. Asthma and other pollution-related diseases will increase, especially in children and marginalized groups, requiring more pediatric, primary care and mental health services. To understand their risks and mitigation opportunities, hospitals will have to conduct climate change assessments.
Climate change significantly contributes to health inequities, affecting public health across our country, and we all have a stake in addressing it. We have pledged to work together to decarbonize healthcare and protect human health from climate change.
David J. Skorton, MD
President and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC)
80%Healthcare sector GHG emissions generated by the medical supply chain
5–9%National greenhouse gas emissions generated by the healthcare sector
Climate change is bringing health equity issues to the forefront. For example, in the context of wildfires, the release of toxic carcinogens from smoke poses a significant health threat. People who lack proper filters in their air conditioning are at higher risk of inhaling these harmful pollutants which are going straight into their homes.
Diana S. Aga, PhD
Director, RENEW Institute; Henry M. Woodburn Professor, Department of Chemistry, University at Buffalo
The healthcare sector itself is a major contributor to global warming, accounting for 5%–9% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the US (4% globally). To remedy their climate impact, hospitals and research institutions will have to become transparent regarding their GHG emissions, switch operations and suppliers to renewable energy sources, and cut down on plastics and other toxic waste.
We are starting to see progress. Over 100 major US hospital and healthcare companies have committed to reducing GHG emissions 50% by 2030 and to net zero by 2050, under the Biden Administration’s Health Sector Climate Pledge. Nonprofit advocacy organization Health Care Without Harm has released a climate action playbook for hospitals—a guide for how to operationalize climate solutions by leaning in to clean energy and developing sustainable operations and procurement strategies.
As an example, 100% of Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital’s electricity is derived from renewable sources. MGH has established a Center for the Environment and Health to integrate environmental sustainability into the clinical, research and educational activities of the hospital.
CommonSpirit Health, the second largest nonprofit hospital chain in the US, with over 700 care sites and 142 hospitals across 21 states, has committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. The organization recently released a detailed Climate Action Plan, which includes reducing emissions across buildings and operations, engaging with supply chain partners, advocating for stronger climate policies and building climate-resilient communities, among other strategies.
Expect to see more and more examples of hospitals and care facilities installing on-site solar plants, purchasing renewable energy and expanding their energy efficiency initiatives. But this is not enough—the majority of the sector’s emissions, nearly 80%, are being generated from the medical supply chain, outside a hospital’s direct control. Efforts that don’t take into account sustainable procurement strategies—including medical devices, food sourcing, pharmaceuticals, packaging—will fall flat.
To incentivize those suppliers to take action, healthcare companies need to flex their collective purchasing power. In Britain, the National Health System requires its suppliers to report on their GHG emissions, and has set a net-zero carbon goal by 2045 for Scope 3 emissions, which includes their suppliers’ suppliers’ emissions.
Reducing resource consumption will present a pivotal task for the healthcare industry, and also bring a significant monetary return. Medical equipment maker Philips has committed to taking trade-ins on used professional medical equipment and refurbishing or locally recycling it. The UK’s NHS has undergone a thorough analysis to better understand the types of waste generated and opportunities created. An NHS task force identified a way to divert 85,000 metric tons of plastic from the hospital system, cutting down CO2 emissions by 235,000 metric tons a year. Through recovery programs, the research team identified a potential to unlock nearly $50 million annually of new sources of revenue, from reintroducing valuable recycled materials back into the supply chain and avoiding costly waste disposal processes. The healthcare industry can make a significant difference by pursuing aggressive climate strategies to decarbonize dayto- day operations and supply chains.
There may be an upfront investment with which to make your hospital resilient to climate change. But that investment is going to pay dividends when looking at the potential harms from an intensified weather event because of climate change.
Dr. Renee N. Salas
Affiliated Faculty, Harvard Global Health Institute; Yerby Fellow, Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Collaboration is key. There is an opportunity for healthcare leaders to step up on climate and partner with peers across the value chain to enable systems-level change. Tackling the climate crisis is not something that any organization can easily do alone, yet the urgency calls on us all to take action.
Mary Ann Ormond
Senior Director, Ceres Company Network
LEADERSHIP • MITIGATION • RESILIENCE
- Increase plant-based foods
- Source locally/sustainably/regenerative ag
- Rooftop farms for harvest & teaching
- Invest, divest, lobby, educate
- Reduce GHG, carbon price
- Supply Chain Circularity
- Collect, Reprocess, Retrofit
- Energy, Chemicals, Food, Waste, Water
- Largest employer in the US
- Food insecurity
- Inequitable societal impact of climate/extreme weather
- Stormwater management, clean energy, local food production, tree planting, active transportation
- Save $$$ on operations
- Lower healthcare costs
- Remain operational
- Building preparedness
- Remaining operational
- Energy independence
- Variable air changes/hour, medical waste, anesthesia, surgical kits
- 30 pounds waste/patient/day
- Reduce methane, toxins & illness via recycling, composting, food donation, paper reduction, blue wrap recycling, modified room service food model
- Reduce air pollution
- Workforce, patients, visitors, goods, services
- Subsidize public transport & electric cars, carpool, bike & pedestrian improvements, charge for parking