Link between climate change and health, local responses and the health sector’s role in creating low-carbon, resilient communities.
For some of us who work on the front-lines of health care, climate change might feel like a distant problem or an overwhelming issue. However, authors of a 2015 article from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health explain that, “Health care facilities play a critical role in reducing health impacts from climate change by treating illnesses and injuries … caring for patients during and after disasters and actively participating in community efforts to adapt to and mitigate climate change.”
In B.C., recent climate-related hazards have included heat waves, unusually low precipitation, and wildfires, while regions like Central and Eastern Canada have seen an increase in winter storms due to climate change. In circumstances like these, health care facilities need to not only operate in the face of power outages, poor air quality, or stress on heating and cooling systems, they also need to prepare for a spike in patient visits, as well as potential shortages due to supply chain and other disruptions.
Fortunately, there are more and more resources, such as Climate Change Resiliency Mentoring, that support climate change preparedness, resilience and adaptation planning in the health sector. In many cases, improvements that reduce the carbon pollution produced by hospital operations can also increase a facility’s resilience to climate hazards.
For example, improved efficiency of lighting, heating, cooling, and ventilation systems reduces greenhouse gas emissions from energy use, while also limiting vulnerability to power disruptions. Similarly, storm water infiltration systems help reduce the likelihood of on-site flooding, while drought resistant landscaping conserves water and helps improve a site’s resilience to anticipated periods of drought.
The Lower Mainland Health Organization’s Energy and Environmental Sustainability team outlines these kinds of co-benefits in the Sustainability Design Guidelines that they provide to planners, designers, and architects when they develop new facilities or undertake large-scale renovations. Each of the Lower Mainland Health Organizations also has an energy management team who track, reduce, and offset carbon emissions, in line with provincial requirements for all public sector organizations.
In addition, the Lower Mainland Health Organization’s Climate Resilience and Adaptation Program carried out climate resilience assessments on five health campuses in early 2016 to better understand how to reduce climate risks and increase resilience at the community level. It’s clear that the work to build low carbon resilience within our health systems is not a straight forward path. However, according to the World Health Organization, it is a path that can lead to “sustained improvements in population health, despite an unstable climate.”
More and more, it is a path shared by many other organizations as identified in the 2020 Health Care Climate Challenge.
To learn how you can be involved in health care’s response to climate change, check out the Green+Leaders program.