Momentum for transformation of US health care sector spotlighted at climate and health conference

  • US & Canada

The U.S. health care sector's growing commitment and progress toward creating low-carbon, climate-resilient, socially equitable health systems took center stage at this week's CleanMed, the premier conference for leaders in health care sustainability.

This commitment to climate action is being championed by the Biden administration, with an emphasis and urgency not seen before.

"The time for discussion and deliberation has long since passed, and action is needed now to protect the people of this country and the world from the health threats associated with climate change," U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary for health Admiral Rachel Levine said in her remarks to conference attendees. "Report after report underscores the seriousness of the situation and confirms that harm from climate change is not a mere possibility in the future, but a day-to-day reality. We need to act collaboratively and urgently in response. History will look back at this moment and judge us for the actions that we take, or that we do not take."

Admiral Rachel Levine, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health, addresses attendees at CleanMed 2022.

Levine highlighted the Biden administration's comprehensive approach in tackling this challenge, and the administration's intent to use this time to fuel momentum in every sector to tackle the climate emergency, including our nation’s health systems. She detailed some of the ways HHS is working to address climate change and its impact on physical and mental health through a number of new actions and collaborations.

Among those actions is the recent establishment of HHS’s Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE), which not only formalized this commitment, but signals an understanding of the important relationship between climate change, public health, and sociocultural equity. This new office aims to build communities' resilience to the impacts of climate change – especially communities being disproportionately affected by climate, in part by working with our nation’s health systems to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and make their operations more resilient. With the U.S. health sector responsible for roughly 8.5% of U.S. carbon emissions, and the global health sector accounting for 4.5% of global GHG emissions, progress in this area is critically important in reaching the administration’s economy-wide GHG reduction goals by 2030.

This commitment was previously signaled in November 2021 when the United States joined more than 50 countries in signing on to COP26 Health Programme, pledging to achieve climate-resilient, low-carbon health systems and to address the health issues associated with climate change.

A month later, President Biden signed an executive order requiring federal facilities, including federal health systems, to cut emissions and set goals aligned with the administration’s overall climate goals, including achieving net-zero emissions across federal buildings.

More recently, on Earth Day, HHS and the White House launched a climate pledge initiative, inviting health care stakeholders to make explicit commitments to reduce their GHG emissions and increase their climate resilience. At CleanMed, Joe McCannon, HHS senior advisor on climate health and equity, joined Levine in encouraging health systems to join the federal climate pledge to be recognized for their efforts and commit to further climate action to reduce the sector’s climate impact and advance its healing mission.

One of the first health systems to sign on to this voluntary pledge was Providence, a member of Health Care Without Harm’s Health Care Climate Council and a recognized leader in climate and equity action, with goals already in place that include reaching net zero by 2030. Ali Santore, Providence executive vice president and chief advocacy officer, shared her system’s vision for the future of health care with conference attendees, and provided examples of actions they’re taking to make that vision a reality for the communities they serve.

"We are driven by our mission to care for the poor and vulnerable. We see another holy trinity being climate, equity, and the environment," Santore said. "To do that, we believe we have to be both ambitious and accountable."

The need for continued commitment, action, collaboration, and urgency was conveyed with both gravity and optimism in Levine's final conference remarks.

"Given the health sector’s significant contribution to carbon emissions and its role as a lynchpin in orchestrating resilient responses to climate health threats, we are in a place to lead lasting, meaningful change – if we are able to come together and act right now," she said.

CleanMed is hosted annually by Practice Greenhealth and Health Care Without Harm.