Climate and health: reflections and resolutions

By Beth Gillespie, MD, FACP

At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow, the U.S. recommitted to cut carbon emissions 50% by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Federal regulations and funding will be necessary if our country is to make good on these commitments. Political trade winds may threaten climate-smart policies, but in this season of reflection, renewal, and resolutions, we find reasons for hope.

Around the world, many in the health sector view climate change as the greatest public health opportunity of the 21st century, and are thus taking action to reduce their own impact. 50 countries committed to low-carbon health systems as part of COP26. Domestically, we are helping lead: Gundersen Health System achieved carbon neutrality in 2014 and Kaiser Permanente did in 2020, which helps cut our sector’s near-10% contribution to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. By reversing climate change, we can reduce the likelihood of deadly heat waves and extreme weather events, clean the air we breathe, and reduce health disparities among groups of people that are more vulnerable to its health impacts, including children, the elderly, some communities of color, people living with chronic illness, and those living at or below the poverty line.

Leaders are also working to build climate resilience into communities and healthcare systems. One example of this on the federal level can be found in the Centers of Disease Control’s Climate Resilient States and Cities Initiative (CRSCI), which funds 11 jurisdictions to implement a framework for building climate resilience within communities.  CRSCI-funded since 2016, Arizona’s Department of Health Services has progressed through the framework and is now evaluating new programs targeting extreme heat.

Finally, the healthcare sector is working to build capacity within its workforce as more and more training programs and continuing medical education authorities integrate climate change into health curricula.  Medical schools at Emory and the University of Colorado not only offer electives in climate and health, all students get exposure through their core curriculum. In June 2021, the American Board of Pediatrics became the first board-certifying body to publish a maintenance of certification module on this climate change and health.

Health leaders can continue seizing the greatest opportunity of the century by working to: build workforce capacity, build community resilience, and reverse the drivers of climate change.  We also must continue fighting for strong climate policies that improve our health.

 

All of us bring light to exciting solutions never tried before
For it is our hope that implores us, at our uncompromising core,
To keep rising up for an earth more than worth fighting for.

-from Earthrise by Amanda Gorman

 

Beth Gillespie MD, FACP is a Climate and Health Science Policy Fellow at the University of Colorado-Anschutz School of Medicine, a partner of Climate for Health.

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