The Role of Healthcare in Climate Change
by Mary Schaefer Badger, DO, FACOI, FAWM
Chair, ACOI Committee on Climate and Health
January 5, 2024
2023 was the warmest year on record in the United States and abroad. Climate change is already exacerbating existing health problems and leading to the emergence of new health threats. These impacts include the following: increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease; injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events; air pollution and heat waves; changes in the prevalence and geographical distribution of foodborne and waterborne illnesses and other infectious diseases; and negative impacts on mental health, among other things. Certain populations are being disproportionately affected, including those who belong to historically marginalized communities.
The recent United Nations’ 28th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 28) hosted the first-ever dedicated Climate and Health Day on December 3, 2023, and has launched a critical call to action, which includes a Declaration on Climate and Health and calls to increase climate financing for health.
Within health care, hospital and health care delivery system leaders have a unique duty to act because their fundamental mission is to provide care, improve health, and do no harm. Given that about 15 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) are from health care activities, health care must be accountable for its own decarbonization. Health care emissions stem from health care facility operations, purchased energy, supply chain of goods and services, and investments. Health care also needs to adapt to the impact of climate change and improve its resiliency. Health care organizations are grappling with a plethora of challenges that demand immediate attention. The imperative to address the climate crisis cannot be overlooked or delayed. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, (IRA), signed into law in August 2022, has potential to empower health care institutions to make tangible strides in mitigating their environmental footprint.
A “catalytic program” is being launched in early 2024 to support health care providers and especially safety net organizations in taking advantage of the tax credits, grants and other support made available by the IRA. This initiative is occurring through collaboration with federal partners, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy and will feature national webinars as well as breakout sessions by provider type to help organizations assess their needs and opportunities. The actual educational program will start in January 2024.
In December 2023, in conjunction with the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the HHS Climate Change and Health Equity Strategy Supplement. This document describes both the specific challenges the public health, health care, and human services sectors face with respect to climate change and, for the first time in one place, captures specific planned responses to prevent harm across communities and healthcare facilities in the US. It is a supplement to the existing HHS Climate Action Plan and is focused on the outward-facing, programmatic activities agencies are carrying out in support of resilience and sustainability across the country.
Implementing an optimal energy strategy, from both the technical and financial perspectives, is not trivial. However, development costs, such as legal, consulting, installation, and engineering fees can be paid for through provisions set forth by the IRA, making the implementation of such systems more attractive. Health care organizations today face an extremely challenging set of circumstances. With the help of the IRA, it is now possible for industry to do their part to address the climate crisis, while still attending to their own needs.