Unprecedented health crises are converging.
The West Coast is burning again, with record-breaking wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington, resulting in evacuations, destroyed neighborhoods, some of the worst air quality in the world, and a rising death count. Hurricane Laura pummeled Louisiana with devastating winds and storm surge, destroying homes and triggering a chemical fire at a petrochemical plant, pouring toxic pollution into communities that already face some of the worst pollution in the country.
Meanwhile, the U.S. surpassed 6 million COVID-19 infections and is quickly closing in on 200,000 deaths, with people of color impacted at a far higher rate than white Americans. Recent studies have confirmed the severe health consequences of air pollution, including the connection to more severe COVID-19 outcomes.
While Americans struggle with a pandemic and the effects of climate change, congressional committees in the House and Senate released reports this summer that provide roadmaps to reduce greenhouse emissions and improve health. The reports also confront realities that COVID-19 has laid bare: Solutions must address health and environmental disparities in communities of color while building a more resilient health care system.
Health care is at the epicenter of both the COVID-19 and climate crises, caring for patients on the frontlines and offering safe havens when people need them most. But our health care system is vulnerable as hospitals, clinics, and community health centers struggle financially due to the pandemic. Low-income communities and communities of color are suffering from the worst impacts of air pollution, extreme weather events, and COVID-19.
As the recent Senate report notes, the health care sector is responsible for 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and can reduce its footprint without increasing its bottom line: “By adopting waste-reducing and energy efficiency measures, hospitals could save $15 billion over 10 years – money that could be reinvested to secure better care for patients and communities.”
Given the interconnection between climate health and human health – and the disproportionate impact climate change has on low-income and communities of color – efforts to reduce health care’s climate impact must be part of health care’s vow to do no harm. One of the most effective ways to protect patient health is by ensuring healthy communities for all.
The health care sector can clean up its own climate footprint while prioritizing community health, equity, and resilience. By kicking its addiction to fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy, health care would not only stop contributing to the epidemic of respiratory and cardiovascular disease in our country, but also support job creation in the clean energy sector.
As community anchors, U.S. hospitals can use their purchasing power to improve the health of their communities. They can contract with more local and minority-owned businesses for sustainable products, both reducing their reliance on suppliers overseas as well as addressing chronic unemployment in the communities they serve. Health care institutions can also leverage their food procurement to support more regional and sustainable farming practices, utilizing healthy food as medicine to reduce unprecedented levels of food insecurity, while also helping to prevent food-related diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
At a time when the country is reeling from multiple crises, we need health care to lead the way on the path to a thriving and sustainable society grounded in health, equity, and community resilience. We also need leadership from the national government. Congress now has the roadmap. There is no time to wait.
Greg A. Adams is the chairman and CEO of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc. and Hospitals. Adams has 30 years of leadership experience as a senior health care executive and has played an integral role in leading the transformation and improvement of patient care outcomes at Kaiser Permanente.
Gary Cohen has been a pioneer in the environmental health movement for more than 30 years, founding Health Care Without Harm, Practice Greenhealth, and Greenhealth Exchange. He serves on several boards, including Health Leads and Coming Clean. A MacArthur Fellow, Cohen has been recognized by the White House, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Skoll Foundation, Huffington Post, and many more for his efforts to transform the health sector to become environmentally sustainable.