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Harvard public health experts discussed the effect of climate change on health care, as well as health care’s carbon footprint, in a panel at Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center on Friday.
The event was moderated by Alicia Ely Yamin, a Law School lecturer and the senior fellow on global health and rights at the Petrie-Flom Center, a program that researches biotechnology, bioethics, and health law policy.
Friday’s panelists discussed both climate change’s impact on healthcare and how the health care system contributes to climate change.
Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health, said climate change serves as a “risk amplifier.” He added that climate change intensifies extreme weather events and risks on health care providers’ ability to provide care, citing the challenges of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the wildfires in California as examples.
“I want to underscore that climate change is not creating new disasters. It’s not creating new burdens of disease. It’s not inventing power outages that make it harder to do our jobs. It is magnifying these things.” Bernstein said.
Bernstein added that the health care sector has been “remarkably timid” at advocating that policymakers and corporations address issues of health equity, which are exacerbated by climate change.
“I would say unmitigated climate change is an enormously detrimental force upon the ability of health care systems to do work productively, writ large,” he said. “And I think the absence of that understanding is perhaps getting in the way of more advocacy from healthcare to address this issue more broadly.”
Still, Anand Bhopal, a fellow in the School of Public Health’s Takemi Program in International Health, said the health sector also contributes to climate change. According to Bhopal, the sector accounts for about 5 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions — more than the pollution of flying and shipping industries. Health care in richer countries, he added, emits the most carbon dioxide.
Bhopal said he is particularly interested in how citizens can push policymakers to implement sustainability in health care systems. But such changes in health care, he said, may not come easily.
“I think it’s fairly clear that health systems already have a huge number of competing concerns. This is worsened by Covid-19. But of course we need to try and address healthcare needs. We need to do that equitably. We need to address staff burnout. The list goes on,” Bhopal said. “And the question is: Where does sustainability and cutting heart care’s carbon footprint fit into this?”
Beyond policy, the supply chain also accounts for 70 to 80 percent of health care’s carbon footprint, according to Bernstein. The health sector depends on pharmaceuticals and single-use plastics, he said, which require fossil fuels to produce.
“We have a real challenge here in technology, which I think we need to be mindful of as we advocate for decarbonization,” Bernstein said. “Everything in health care is plastic. So we can want to decarbonize health care, but the lion’s share of health care is in resources for which we right now have very few alternatives.”
Despite this, Bernstein said he is “very encouraged” by the recent signs of communication between providers and manufacturers, which have previously been “rarely that transparent.”
Bhopal advocated for treating sustainable health care as a “distinct legal concern.”
“It’s saying it’s not really a competition between health and the climate,” Bhopal said. “It’s that we have a commitment to deliver health in a low-carbon, climate-protecting way.”
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