Americans place a high priority on health. We spend about 18% of our GDP directly on health - even more if you include organic food and exercise-grounded recreational activities. And, as we watch warmer temperatures, growing seasons, and vector-borne diseases like dengue fever and Lyme disease march steadily further north each year, we are all coming to understand the health implications of climate change.
We have an opportunity to ensure the people who will be most affected by climate change are taken care of in this country and throughout the world.
Senior Director of Community Benefit and Continuing Care
Catholic Health Association
Climate change is an enormous challenge and mandate for America’s healthcare and public health systems. Fortunately, there is no more capable or trusted segment of society to handle this issue than health professionals. Health professionals have always been on the front lines of caring for their patients and advocating for solutions to America’s most pressing public health concerns. Today, as climate change delivers record-breaking storms, droughts, temperature swings, and increased pollution, America’s health leaders are stepping forward to take on this profound challenge.
Health leadership is vital not only for dealing with the consequences of climate change, but also for addressing the causes. We can help our patients and communities understand that caring about health means supporting climate solutions. We can communicate the health consequences of climate change and the urgent need to lead by example in everyday practices within our organizations and communities. We can support policies that will protect our well-being and nurture a healthy, clean energy future. And while climate change affects all people, our health leadership is even more essential for our children, our elderly, people with existing illnesses, and those living in disadvantaged communities, all of whom are made more vulnerable by climate-related health threats.
Ready to Lead
Health professionals are uniquely positioned to foster new levels of support for climate change solutions. Considered the nation’s most highly trusted and accessible leaders, we reach a breadth and diversity of Americans, and have powerful potential to motivate them to protect and enhance their health. Whether through the critical role of public health, the credible voice of healthcare professionals, the health field’s enormous economic heft (representing more than 17% of the United States’ gross national product), or because over 263 million Americans visit health care professionals every year, the health sector’s combined influence, reach, and impact can move the needle on climate at a scale on par with the issue’s size and urgency. The more research reveals and we experience the health impacts of climate change, the more health leaders are needed to make the case that climate change is an urgent health issue.
On the Path to a Positive Future
As first-responders, health professionals are already treating patients, and addressing the growing public health challenges of increasing illness, disease, and injury stemming from our changing climate. Health leaders are undertaking major efforts to advance sustainability practices within our hospitals, clinics, offices, and facilities throughout the country. Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth, for example, began in 1996 and 1998 respectively, after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified medical waste incineration as the leading source of dioxin emissions, one of the most potent carcinogens, and as the source for a large percentage of mercury pollution.
We are also increasingly at the table with other key sectors such as agriculture, urban design, energy, and transportation to ensure that some of our most persistent health issues, such as asthma, obesity, and heart disease, can be better addressed through policies that achieve climate goals while supporting more walkable cities, cleaner energy, healthier diets, and sustainable agriculture. As the voice of health for all Americans, we can prepare and protect them from the health consequences of climate change, and promote the health benefits of urgent action on solutions.
Now is the time for health professionals to leverage our leadership on climate change throughout our organizations, communities, and nation. Health can be a game-changing driver for climate change solutions. We can help put America on a path towards a thriving society that supports the health and wellbeing of Americans and people worldwide. Our oath of responsibility to our patients and communities must now include helping them understand that caring for their health means caring about and supporting climate solutions.
The Climate for Health program and the Path to Positive commitment combines institutional leadership with action on climate change to bring the full force of the health sector to prepare Americans and build a critical mass of support for solutions.