Following the United Nations’ warning of an intensifying climate emergency in the coming decades, health experts have demanded government and industry action that will prepare medical systems for natural disasters, as well as slashing greenhouse gas emissions.
The U.N. report, issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), found that temperatures on Earth have risen so much that there is no way to prevent extreme weather from getting worse in the next 30 years.
Several groups and medical societies have called on the federal government to implement policies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sixty healthcare organizations — including the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, and the American Psychological Association — wrote a letter to Congress today, demanding that current legislative efforts on infrastructure include a package that would cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.
Humans have already heated the planet by approximately 1.1°C (about 34°F) since the 19th century, with the burning of fossil fuels largely driving rising temperatures, according to the U.N. report. While a total halt to carbon emissions might cause temperatures to level off by 2050, the panel stated that it’s likely that total global warming will rise to 1.5°C in the coming years, resulting in more extreme weather.
Medical providers and public health experts have called for local action and federal policies that focus on shifting to zero emissions and protecting populations from natural disasters to come.
“This spells out, in certain terms, that it will be impossible for us to do our jobs if we don’t act on climate change,” said Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
Bernstein added that healthcare delivery will be fully compromised by extreme weather such as heat waves, wildfires, and hurricanes. Those events also will impact health system infrastructure, the medical supply chain, and patients’ access to care.
He said that the medical community can take ownership of climate issues by looking at practices within its own industry. The U.S. healthcare system’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased across the last decade, contributing to 8.5% of total emissions nationwide. It is crucial that large hospital systems set clear targets to meet zero emissions moving forward, Bernstein said.
Antonia Herzog, PhD, of Healthcare Without Harm, an organization that promotes sustainable healthcare delivery, said that health systems can take action in several ways, such as purchasing more sustainable medical supplies or reducing emissions by cutting use of unnecessary anesthetic gases.
But Herzog added that natural disaster preparedness is key to preserve healthcare infrastructure and care for patients in the future. Ensuring systems have backup renewable energy sources, creating facilities built for flooding or high winds, and having emergency plans for extreme weather will be crucial to provide adequate care in times of need, she explained.
“Emergency rooms, when Portland [Oregon] hit 110°F, were completely overwhelmed,” Herzog said. “The system needs to be prepared for these extreme weather events.”
While action from the healthcare sector and local governments can help decarbonize and protect patients from future disasters, Herzog said that “there is just no question” that national legislation will have the most impact on emission reductions. “Ultimately, it’s federal policy that will drive the transition and transformation of our economy,” she said.
Mona Sarfaty, MD, founder and director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, said that “to protect human health, we need to put in place the policies that can help protect our patients from extreme heat and poor air quality, and make sure that everything is being done that can be.” This includes infrastructure solutions to promote cooling and decarbonization in high-risk areas, but also work from individual providers to communicate risk and solutions to vulnerable populations, she added.
In the August 9 letter, the organizations called for policy initiatives to reduce air pollution, including 100% renewable energy by 2035, long-term clean energy tax incentives, zero-emission vehicles and ports, and a commitment to environmental justice by ensuring 40% of investments aid communities that have been disproportionately affected by pollution.
Bernstein said that although the news about climate is not positive, leaders must focus on action. As a pediatrician, he compared the dire consequences of climate change to some forms of childhood blood cancer that many years ago were seen as uniformly fatal, but are now almost entirely curable.
“It is critical that we not dally on the bad news,” Bernstein said. “We have to focus on the cure here, which is in our grasp.”