Climate dispatch: Local healthcare systems heeding call to action (Opinion)
Public health is a familiar term to most of us, but what is “public health,” anyway? According to Brittanica.com, it is “the art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting physical and mental health, sanitation, personal hygiene, control of infectious diseases, and organization of health services.”
Given what Tahoe area residents have been experiencing in recent years, from wildfire threats and smoke to drought conditions (which still persist –though less severely– despite a much-needed series of storms this winter), it seems that the public health of our local community is not in peak condition, to say the least. That said, there are a number of opportunities to make our collective health more resilient to our changing climate here in Tahoe – and engaging our local healthcare system on this topic feels like a promising place to start.
The Lancet, one of the world’s most respected medical journals, recently stated that “climate change is the greatest global health threat facing the world in the 21st century, but it is also the greatest opportunity to redefine the social and environmental determinants of health.”
Healthcare systems are uniquely positioned to create enormous impacts in the fight against climate change. For starters, the healthcare sector in the U.S. is responsible for approximately 8.5% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, so climate-related efforts undertaken within the industry can have a huge impact on our national emissions. Further, medical providers have a meaningful opportunity to use their credible and trusted voices in a community to both advise their patients on reducing health risks associated with climate change, as well as to advocate for climate solutions within their local communities and beyond.
Many healthcare systems across the US and in northern California have begun to heed the Lancet’s call to action, and are investing in both climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.
Just down the hill from Tahoe, UC Davis Health was recently recognized as a “national leader in environmental sustainability” by Practice Greenhealth, the largest national organization “dedicated to environmental sustainability in healthcare,” according to their website. The University of California Health System is also a member of the Health Care Climate Council, as well as a signatory in the Health and Human Services Health Sector Climate Pledge, which involves committing to a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and net zero by 2050. The health system has partnered with COPIA, a tech-enabled food recovery company, to collect “pre-consumer accessed, edible food, and… deliver it to local nonprofits.” This, according to the UC Davis Health website, has saved 18,000 pounds of food and yielded 15,000 donated meals. For the inedible food, UC Davis health partners with California Save Soil to convert to fertilizer.
Another locally-based health system, Sutter Health, is also a member of Practice Greenhealth, was one of the founding members of the California Health Care Climate Alliance, and employs a multi-faceted approach to sustainable practices and conservation. For example, the Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital earned a LEED Gold certification for its comprehensive climate-friendly design, including the installation of a 1.6 megawatt solar energy project that’s projected to offset 40% of the hospital’s overall electricity usage. By having an on-site source of renewable energy, the hospital will avoid “1,725 metric tons of CO2 emissions annually or the equivalent of 194,021 gallons of gasoline consumed,” according to the developer.
Lastly, following the impact of the devastating Camp Fire in 2018, the Feather River Health Care facility located in Paradise, has begun to rebuild in the years since with an eye towards protecting community health against the backdrop of a changing climate. In 2021, the health care facility implemented a solar and microgrid project to deliver clean energy in instances of blackouts and power shutoffs, and increase their energy independence and resiliency in the face of future wildfires and other climate disasters. Microgrid development has emerged as a promising infrastructure solution for climate adaptation, particularly in the wildfire-prone West.
These are just three of thousands of healthcare systems around the country –and the world– who have chosen to adopt green policies to save the environment and save money in the process by becoming more cost and energy efficient. And now, with the passage of the historic Inflation Reduction Act, it’s even easier for health care systems in the United States to take advantage of substantive cost savings when adopting energy-saving renewable technologies. One provision in the IRA in particular now makes it possible for non-profits like community-led hospitals to take advantage of tax credits for renewable energy sources, which didn’t used to be the case. Now is an opportune time for health care systems to seriously invest in climate mitigation and adaptation strategies.
Our local healthcare system here in Truckee and North Tahoe is a public healthcare district; a special kind of public entity under California law, with a board of directors elected by the citizens of the district. As such, we are lucky that we have the opportunity to make our community’s needs and views known to them directly at any board meeting. This can include our community’s commitment to climate action, our desire for every community institution to be part of our reduced greenhouse gas emissions goals, and our need for public education on the health effects of climate change. We can use our voices, respectfully, to ensure that a valuable community resource and major employer is pulling with the rest of us to address climate change in a significant way and ensure a livable and healthy community and world.
Jaena Bloomquist is a Truckee resident and mother of two. She is a writer, editor, and climate advocate. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Meg Heim is an artist, amateur mycologist, and climate advocate. She is a volunteer with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and lives on the west shore with her husband and her brown lab.
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