Extreme heat waves in 2020 contributed to 98 million more people suffering from food insecurity, compared to the years between 1981 and 2010. The hours of labor lost worldwide to heat in 2021 amounted to $669 billion in potential lost wages. Yet energy-related CO2 emissions reached a record high the same year.
These facts from the medical journal The Lancet paint a stark picture of the world in which the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) took place. But until recently, the health effects of climate change did not register on the United Nations’ conference agenda. According to University of California health leaders in attendance at COP27, health considerations are a growing part of the global discussion on climate change, but these health impacts warrant still more attention than they received at the 2022 event.
To elevate awareness and drive action on issues of health and climate justice, UC and the Université Paris Cité co-hosted an event on the sidelines of COP27 examining the role of the health care sector in the climate crisis, as well as best practices and future challenges that will need to be addressed. UC’s academic health centers serve the nation’s most populous state and its most vulnerable residents. At the co-hosted event, UC health leaders shared experience and insights from the health and community impacts of major heat events and advised how hospitals can anchor climate action.
A need more urgent than pledges
As conceptual agreements such as a Loss and Damage Fund dominated COP27 headlines, participants from the health sector pressed for attention on the tangible effects of a changing climate. Sapna Thottathil, Ph.D., MSc, managing director for UC’s Center for Climate, Health and Equity, prefaced the co-hosted discussion with the facts of California’s unprecedented 2022 heat and highlighted the breadth of the state served by UC academic health centers.
Thottathil also observed, “While the debate goes on about who’s to blame for climate change, the risks to human health continue. We need to continue to elevate the voices of clinicians and health researchers who remind us of what’s important – protecting lives – and encourage policymakers and leaders globally to focus on the need for action at the intersection of climate change and health.”
Sheri Weiser, M.D., professor of medicine at UCSF and one of the co-founders of UC’s Center for Climate, Health and Equity, spoke about research and the demands of operating under extreme weather conditions, the preparations necessary to respond to the immediate crisis presented by climate events, and the need to consider longer-term health impacts of climate change.
Weiser also emphasized the inequity of climate change’s effects and the mission of the Center for Climate, Health and Equity to bring physicians, researchers, scientists and other partners together “to drive meaningful climate action and address health care disparities.” The pillars of the center’s work include building a world-class education hub for future health professionals, initiating research designed to get the data necessary for policy and community efforts to move forward, and accelerating climate-sensitive operations as well as fostering a culture of commitment among faculty, staff and students systemwide.
Reducing hospitals’ contribution
Discussion at the UC-sponsored event also addressed hospitals’ role in the harm that the sector aims to heal. At COP27, even health care leaders from developing nations recognized the need to address their hospitals’ environmental footprint. Meanwhile, the U.S. health care sector accounts for a quarter of the world’s health care emissions.
In this context, Gail Lee, director of Sustainability at UCSF, spoke about hospital operations including research into the effects of specific types of climate events experienced in California, from extreme heat to sustained exposure to wildfire smoke.
Lee also presented UC’s sustainable practices commitments and the included targets for its health system to reduce its impact in areas such as emissions, waste, water use and food procurement.
Sharing UC’s health systemwide initiatives as well as actions that UCSF has taken, Lee explained that UC’s health enterprise is cutting its carbon emissions through measures such as making hospital operating rooms more energy-efficient and reducing the use of certain anesthesia gases that contribute environmental pollutants.
A window into the future
For the newest health leaders attending COP27, the conference gave a glimpse of their future. In conversation with representatives from those who are – and will be – most vulnerable, it was evident that the health impacts of a changing climate will come to dominate the practice of medicine.
So will inequity. Although COP27 featured the first Climate Justice Pavilion in the event’s history, UCSF fourth-year medical student Karly Hampshire noticed “two COPs happening at once.” From her perspective, delegates negotiating agreements and event observers with limited access had very different experiences and exposure to issues.
“The people whose health is or will be most affected, including young people and people from low-income communities and nations, were somewhat represented at side events,” said Hampshire. “But due to the cost of participation alone, many groups who most deserve to be heard and served were underrepresented. Going forward, it will be important that those voices are also represented at the highest levels of UNFCCC negotiations."