I have always enjoyed talking with my patients from coastal Louisiana. They enjoy life, embrace their environment, and give me a perspective which is both similar and different than that of residents of New Orleans where I practice hospital medicine.
Their hospitalization is often a reflective moment in their lives. Lately I have been asking them about their advice to their children concerning the future of southern Louisiana in reference to sea rise, global warming, and increasing climatic events. More often than not, they have been telling their children it is time to move away.
These are a people who have strong devotion to family, but they are also practical. More than anything they would like their children to stay and preserve their heritage, but concern for their children’s future outweighs that. They have not come to this conclusion by scientific reports, but rather by what is happening before them. This group of people doesn’t alarm easily, but they see the unrelenting evidence of land loss and sea rise before them with little reason to believe it will change.
I am normally not one to speak out about climate change. Like most I have listened to the continuous alarms sounded by experts but have always assumed someone more qualified than myself should lead the efforts. But when I see the tangible effects of climate change both in my own life and the lives of my patients, I feel a sense of urgency.
Twelve years. That is the time we have to significantly reduce carbon emissions before catastrophic and potentially irreversible events will occur. This evidence is according to the authors of the landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in October 2018. The report states urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to limit temperature elevations of 1.5°C and 2°C, as compared with the preindustrial era. Exceeding a 2°C elevation will likely lead to global adverse events at an unprecedented level.1
The events forecast by the U.N. report are not abstract, particularly as they relate to public health. With high confidence, the report outlines with high specificity: increases in extreme heat, floods, crop failures, and a multitude of economic and social stressors which will affect the care of our most vulnerable patients.1
This statement by Dr. Dana Hanson, president of the World Medical Association, summarizes the effects of climate change on the delivery of health care: “Climate change represents an inevitable massive threat to global health that will likely eclipse the major pandemics as a leading cause of death in the 21st century.”
So, what does the health care system have to do with climate change and its primary driver, carbon emissions? More than I realized, as the U.S. health care industry produces 10% of the nation’s carbon emissions.2 If the U.S. health care system was a country it would be ranked seventh, ahead of the United Kingdom; 10% of all smog and 9% of all particulate-related respiratory disease can be attributed to the carbon emissions of the health care industry. This breaks down to possibly 20,000 premature deaths per year.2 Our current health care industry is a significant driver of environmentally related disease and will continue to be so, unless major change occurs.
Although much of it is behind the scenes, providing health care 24/7 is a highly energy-intensive and waste-producing endeavor. Many of the innovations to reduce carbon emissions that have been seen in other industries have lagged behind in health care, as we have focused on other issues.
But the health care system is transitioning. It strives to address the whole person, including where they live, work, and play. A key component of this will be addressing our impact on the environments we serve. How can we make that argument if we don’t first address our own impact on the climate?