While this year’s U.N. climate summit in Egypt led to new initiatives to address the health impacts of the climate crisis, emergency physicians from the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard University who attended the meeting are pushing for further action to mitigate the causes of the crisis, including reducing global reliance on fossil fuels, they said during a panel discussion Tuesday.
The impacts of climate change — and the health harms associated with it — were at the forefront of discussion at the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), which ended earlier this week. This year’s meeting marked the second health program at the conference, which started just last year at COP26.
“I think the conversation at COP was very much influenced by a sense that the impacts are real, and they are happening,” said Caleb Dresser, MD, MPH, an emergency physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, referencing the wave of extreme weather events across the globe, including monsoon flooding that displaced millions of people in Pakistan.
Kimberly Humphrey, MD, MPH, a visiting scholar at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, noted that the recognition of the impacts from these events has led to increased funding and support for countries that disproportionately suffer from climate change. Despite this progress, global actions to reduce the use of fossil fuels have been disappointing, she said.
“We’re still on track to hit about 2.7 degrees of warming, which will be catastrophic for our planet,” Humphrey noted. “It would have been wonderful to see more ambition on mitigation.”
Tess Wiskel, MD, also from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, pointed out that “this is not where we need to be with mitigation,” drawing a parallel between treating the climate crisis and treating patients. “We can treat the symptoms,” she said. “But if we’re not treating the cause of the disease, we’re not doing enough.”
During the conference, HHS announced their collaboration with England’s National Health Service (NHS) to align procurement requirements — an effort to reduce emissions related to the supply chain from healthcare systems in the U.S. — and noted that more than 100 healthcare organizations have signed the White House/HHS Climate Pledge, a voluntary agreement to meet targets for cutting emissions and improving climate resilience plans.
The U.S. healthcare system contributes to about 8.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, with around 80% of those emissions traced back to the supply chain.
“We often hear the discussions around mitigation in the healthcare sector around things like electric bills for hospitals, and big construction decisions,” Humphrey said. “But our procurement, our supply chains, are a significant contributor to carbon emissions as well.”
The NHS has become a global leader in moving toward a carbon “net zero” health system, reducing its carbon emissions by an estimated 62% since 1990. Humphrey said that because the U.S. health system is not publicly run like the NHS, there will be challenges in meeting these goals.
The speakers also praised the establishment of a “loss and damage” fund that was negotiated at the closing of COP27. This agreement committed funding to support low-income countries that are the most vulnerable to climate disasters, yet have contributed little to the crisis. The fund will specifically cover the cost of damages that these countries cannot avoid or adapt to.
Dresser noted that the creation of this fund is huge progress in and of itself. “If you had told me a month ago that this fund would even exist on paper, I would have been shocked. The next step is, we need to figure out how we fund it.”
Humphrey said that the loss and damage fund needs to reach $200 billion by 2030 and $1 trillion by 2050 to address all of the damages that will occur as a result of the climate crisis.
While the fund is a drop in the bucket in providing adequate support to these countries, it is a huge step in the right direction, Wiskel added. “There were pledges made by certain countries that were in the millions, obviously nowhere near where it needs to be. But I think just having the funds there is going to be the starting point.”
The panelists encouraged healthcare workers to continue sharing personal stories of impact, as well as having conversations with their patients, colleagues, and political leaders.
“We can’t have healthy people without a healthy planet,” Humphrey said. “I think we can very well identify this is our greatest health challenge, but it’s also our greatest health opportunity.”
For all the latest Health News Click Here