Global leaders made commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow this week in an effort to address the climate crisis.
Some argue that mobilizing healthcare is an important step to combat climate change. Extreme heat and natural disasters as well as climate-induced infectious diseases pose a serious threat to human healthcare. However, global health systems are responsible. 4.4% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
MedPage TodayWe spoke with Gary Cohen (president and founder of Health Care Without Harm, which focuses on healthcare’s unique role during the climate crisis and the organization’s goals for COP26. This is ahead of the 2021 Conference on Health and Climate Change. Below is an edited transcript from the conversation.
Please tell me about the origins of Health Care Without Harm. Why do you believe the healthcare industry should take action to combat climate change?
Cohen:Since the mid-1980s, I have been involved with environmental health issues. New science emerged in the mid-1990s that challenged our assumptions about the health effects of toxic chemicals. EPA was established at the same moment as this new science. [the Environmental Protection Agency]It was reported that the largest source for dioxin emissions in the United States came from medical waste incinerators.
The healthcare sector, whose mission it is to heal, was contributing a lot of pollution. This had links to cancer, birth defects, neurological issues, and many other health problems. Ironically, this very sector of our economy was a huge polluter.
I and others stated that we cannot create a healthy society in which our families, children, and communities can all live happily. However, the very sector of our economy meant to focus on healing is totally ignorant of their environmental health concerns.
This was the inspiration for Health Care Without Harm. We felt we had to share the latest science on chemicals, climate and health with the sector that could do something about it. They had to clean up after themselves to get them to do no harm.
What do you think has happened to healthcare’s role in fighting climate change?
Cohen:Dramatically. It’s been a total sea change.
Ten years ago, we met with the World Health Organization to say, “We have to bring the health sector into this climate struggle.” There is now a health programWe developed this with the World Health Organization [WHO]COP presidency. We hope that more than 20 countries will sign up for this health program.
This health program requires national governments and their health system to do two important things. The first is to create climate-resilient health systems that can withstand extreme weather events. The other is to decarbonize the healthcare system.
When we started talking about climate, the predominant narrative was that it was a problem that would affect future generations. It also concerned melting ice caps and polar bears. We are now seeing more people realizing that it is fundamentally a health issue. It’s an equity problem, it’s justice issue, and it’s also a survival issue.
Extreme weather events that are linked to the climate crisis pose a growing threat to human health. What should healthcare systems do about climate resilience?
Cohen:They should ensure that their communities are resilient by establishing a healthcare infrastructure. It is crucial that they understand the supply chains and design for climate disasters.
They must also understand the changing disease burden. What does it mean for a community if it’s 100°F for 2 weeks in a row? Who is most at risk? People who live in areas prone to pollution or near diesel truck routes will be more vulnerable. Children and communities of colour will be more affected.
One of the most important goals is to understand your community’s vulnerabilities and to anchor your own infrastructure.
About 10% of total carbon emissions in the United States comes from the U.S. healthcare system. How can healthcare lower its emissions?
Cohen:75% of it goes into the supply chain. The bulk of their income comes from the stuff they purchase. It’s in the petroplastics, the anesthetic gases, and in the food. It’s in single-use items that are thrown away. It’s also found in pharmaceuticals.
What if health systems had a wider range of supply chains that were closer to their facilities, and didn’t rely on China for products? This is something we are trying to do with food. The health systems spend billions on food. Why don’t they use that money to support local, healthy food systems.
There are also opportunities in healthcare delivery. Is it necessary for everyone to visit a healthcare facility? Telehealth is an option. Telehealth is not necessary for everyone to be present in the emergency room. We can make visits but not emergency visits over the phone via diagnostics. There is a lot of opportunity.
U.S. healthcare accounts for over 25% of global healthcare emission. The United States healthcare system has a greater responsibility to decarbonize than anyone else.
What are Health Care Without Harm’s goals following the COP26 meetings
Cohen:We hope that the U.S. government will participate in the health program that we have established with WHO. We also hope that we can work closely together to decarbonize America’s healthcare system in ways which support community health and racial justice.
Second, we want to create a movement in the health sector. We hope to mobilize millions of nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers to create an army of advocates for global survival. This is what’s at stake. Not just in this country, it’s all around the globe.
How can healthcare workers be involved in combating climate change?
Cohen:Doctors and nurses are the most trusted professions of any country. This is why it’s so important to educate, mobilize and equip doctors and nurses to use their political clout as well as their moral suasion to advocate the acceleration away fossil fuels, toxic chemical, and industrial farming.