Health leaders converge with urgency, unity, and even some optimism at U.S. Climate and Health Meeting
by Jennifer Wang, Healthy Energy Initiative Coordinator, Health Care Without Harm
Over 300 health professionals and health scientists around the United States and the world united at a landmark Climate and Health Meeting on February 16 to discuss the urgent measures needed to prevent and ameliorate the adverse health impacts of a changing climate.
A small team from Health Care Without Harm participated in the meeting to highlight the opportunity for the health sector — as anchors in the storm — to lead the way to a healthy, low-carbon future.
A fraught political moment
Originally organized by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the meeting was abruptly cancelled allegedly due to concerns about the Trump administration’s oppositional climate stance, which favors revival of the carbon-intensive and health-harming coal industry. To fill the void, the meeting was quickly reconvened by Former Vice President Al Gore, the American Public Health Association, and health academic institutions.
Compacted from three days into one, the meeting’s pace and tenor mirrored the urgency and severity of the public health challenges posed by climate change — deemed by the Lancet to be one of the greatest public health threats as well as opportunities of the 21st century.
“In the 21st century we can no longer support healthy people on a sick planet,” said Health Care Without Harm President Gary Cohen, speaking at the event about the moral and economic power of health care. “We need to be exercising our voices and defending public health.”
The toll on physical and mental health
Gore and health researchers presented the latest science linking climate change and public health: from heat waves to extreme weather, from food shortages to the spread of infectious diseases, from worsening allergies to increasing conflict — all while highlighting the vulnerable populations that will be most impacted, including children and those already facing health challenges and social injustice.
In one of the most striking segments of the day, psychiatrist Dr. Lise Van Susteren called attention to the emotional toll of the deaths, illnesses, injuries, loss of property and livelihoods, displacement, and sense of uncertainty caused by climate change.
Speaking pointedly about the destructive consequences of climate inaction, Van Susteren noted that these mental health effects may be compounded by the fact that they result from modifiable human activities — such as the burning of fossil fuels — and not accidents of nature.
Health leadership more important than ever
“It is more urgent now than ever for health care to stand up to protect public health from climate change,” said Cohen. “Hospitals and health systems need to reduce their own significant carbon emissions, prepare for the negative health impacts of extreme climate events, and lead society away from its addiction to fossil fuels and towards a clean, renewable, and healthy energy future.”
Cohen pointed out that around the world there’s a climate movement happening in the health sector: hospitals and health systems such as Partners HealthCare, Kaiser Permanente, and Gundersen Health System are building climate mitigation and resilience into their facilities and communities; health organizations such as the Canadian Medical Association are divesting from fossil fuels; and Greenhealth Exchange is leveraging health care’s purchasing power to accelerate the adoption of more climate-friendly products.
The results are promising, noted Cohen: the United States is now producing more jobs in clean energy than in the fossil fuel industry, and these investments are good for people’s health. These win-win scenarios have proven resilient to political instability, as even conservative jurisdictions are supporting renewable energy development.
More good news in health co-benefits
In an uplifting lunchtime keynote, Sir Dr. Andy Haines of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine focused on the “good news story of climate change and health” — the immediate, local health co-benefits of climate action. Reducing meat consumption and commuting via bicycles instead of cars, for example, will simultaneously prevent chronic diseases and lower climate pollution.
One of the biggest source of health co-benefits was already illustrated in Al Gore’s opening keynote, however: cutting our addiction to fossil fuels will prevent millions of premature deaths from air pollution, now the fifth leading cause of death among all health risks worldwide.
Haines cited a 2016 report from the International Energy Agency that showed that a 7% increase in investment can save over 3 million lives in 2040, while providing energy access for all, lowering energy import bills, and stopping growth of CO2 emissions by 2020.
These messages — of hope, of solutions, of mutual wins for public health, the planet, and the economy — are crucial to moving the needle forward on climate change in the current political climate.
Health Care Without Harm seeks to transform the health sector worldwide, without compromising patient safety or care, so that it becomes ecologically sustainable and a leading advocate for environmental health and justice.