Reflecting on his experience returning from space aboard Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, William Shatner exclaimed, “We need to take care of the planet, it’s so fragile. There’s this little, tiny blue skin that is 50 miles wide, and we pollute it, and it’s our means of living.”
The World Health Organization currently considers climate change “the single biggest health threat facing humanity.” More directly: the health of the earth is impacting our individual health outcomes.
Climate change – which refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns mainly caused by humans – together with other natural and human-made health stressors, has a profound and undeniable impact on public health. Human health threats imposed by climate change include death, illness and injury from extreme weather events such as heatwaves, storms and floods, disruption of food and water systems, and more.
A hypothetical but plausible picture: A forest fire devastates a once-thriving community. First responders submit themselves to potential injuries and premature death. The residents in the surrounding area experience increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Carcinogens from the smoke contaminate local water supplies and poison consumers. Local farms are scorched by the flames and the community experiences food and produce shortages. Damages to the area cost millions of dollars, and funding for programs that provide healthcare for people in need is cut drastically. A mental health crisis ensues because of the collective trauma. The healthcare system is soon overloaded and an entire community tragically collapses.
With inadequate action on climate health, we’re exposing vulnerabilities to our own personal health – and for some, the risk is even more formidable. Climate-sensitive health risks are disproportionately
felt by marginalized groups: Women, ethnic minorities, older populations, those with underlying health conditions and poorer communities. These groups typically have fewer resources, so when climate events occur and without a secure safety net they experience a significantly increased personal health risk.
Climate change is far too complex to be addressed simply by individual contributions. While there are many climate benefits to recycling, composting and opting for re-usable shopping bags, experts say these are not among the highest-priority actions.6 It is no wonder millions of people are experiencing “green fatigue.”
The onus must shift, and expand, from individuals to include the likes of government and corporations. Large companies are the most significant contributors to global warming. If the global healthcare industry were a country, it would be the fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet, responsible for about 4.5% of worldwide emissions. In the U.S., the healthcare industry’s contribution to emissions is even more pronounced, adding an estimated 8–9.8% to the total national emissions. This damage to the environment directly causes a decline in human health – meaning healthcare companies are exacerbating a problem they are in the business of solving.
At BCW Healthcare, we are highlighting the link between climate health and human health, and the healthcare industry’s role within it. Our goal is to help healthcare companies take on more purpose-drive initiatives, and for those already engaged, help communicate how they are preventing further warming, by doing such things as investing in “green” technology, adapting eco-conscious policies at all organizational levels, and creating jobs and taskforces to ensure the least possible harm to the planet.
If the need to improve human health isn’t compelling enough, the financial cost of climate-related health conditions that drive up the total cost of care, and thereby dragging down the bottom lines of both health systems and health plans, should be. Changes to the environment are expected to increase the total cost of health care services and expenses to operate due to damaged infrastructure, supply-chain disruptions and the increased complexity of care.
This Earth Day and every day thereafter, join BCW Healthcare in developing a deeper understanding of how climate change is affecting human health, today. This is not another generation’s issue - we are feeling the negative impact of climate change and it is imperative for healthcare organizations to take immediate action – lives are at stake.