Climate change is a public health issue. The World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 deaths per year can be linked to climate change, excluding deaths resulting from extreme weather conditions, such as hurricanes. Other estimates that include fatalities resulting from extreme weather go as high as 400,000 per year.
One industry that has traditionally stayed out of the climate change debate that should be taking a leadership role is the healthcare industry. Hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and healthcare product manufacturers are massive fossil energy consumers and are presently contributing to climate change in no small amount. As a result of this behavior, they are exacerbating some of the very illnesses that they aim to prevent.
Clinicians and other leaders in the health community also have a moral imperative to better understand the link between climate change and the epidemic of chronic disease that fill hospitals with sick patients.
The good news is that hospitals can play a leading role in the battle against climate change and the battle to better protect our health. First, as powerful entities in their respective communities, they can wield their influence to promote policies and initiatives that help combat climate change. Second, as major users of energy, hospitals can lead by example both by increasing energy efficiency in their own buildings and by using an increasing amount of renewable energy to meet their generation demands. Third, as major employers, hospital leadership should encourage their staff – there are an estimated five million healthcare employees in the nation – to become grassroots climate champions.
Hospitals, health care providers and public health advocates must put their feet down and say, “enough is enough” and join the growing ranks of business, advocacy and elected leaders working to protect our environment and ultimately our health.