Why climate change matters to health, and how we can actually help

Young corn plants in dry cracked soil

Earlier this month, the United Nations released its latest findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, cautioning a near future of “unprecedented heat waves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages and the extinction of a million species of plants and animals” because of the Earth’s path toward increased global warming. In other words: It’s us or fossil fuels.

And that’s because these weather events and extinction of animals can have huge effects on the health of humans, as explained by medical journal The Lancet in its 2021 report on health and climate. Let’s explore how this really can change health outcomes for people throughout the world, and what power we have to prevent further damage.

Why climate change matters

Global drought leaves us with less food — and more expensive food

Crops worldwide rely on sufficient rainfall and nutrients, as well as certain seasonal temperatures, to grow properly. When growing seasons are shortened, it greatly affects the important staple crops so many around the world depend on, like corn, wheat, soybeans and rice. Less food equates to rising food prices and reduced access for marginalized populations in particular.

Changing climate conditions mean diseases can spread more easily

As the planet warms, diseases are more likely to spread through insects, food and water. Viruses spread through mosquitoes, especially — such as dengue, malaria and Zika — continue to increase their transmission. As ocean surface temperatures and the concentrations of salt in seawater change, people are becoming more exposed to types of bacteria that cause life-threatening cholera, sepsis and other infections.

Increasingly extreme temperatures threaten safety for all

Extreme cold and extreme heat pose a serious health hazard for all people, but particularly for very young children, the elderly, people who live in dense cities, people with certain health conditions and people who have fewer resources for cooling, like fans and air conditioning. High temperatures also limit the number of hours people can do certain jobs, threatening their livelihoods.

These extreme temperatures, coupled with drought-stricken landscapes, can lead to more wildfires, which affect the air quality for people within hundreds of miles, torch homes, and kill those in the fire’s wake.

These are just a few of many examples of the devastating effects of the planet warming as fast as it has been. The effects of climate change, as The Lancet says, are “beginning to reverse years of progress in tackling the food and water insecurity that still affects the most underserved populations around the world, denying them an essential aspect of good health.”

OK, that was scary. But take a deep breath — there are actions we can take to reverse this course, such as conserving and reusing resources and choosing better energy sources to reduce our carbon footprints.

What we can do

As individuals, we’re not powerless. And yet, when it comes to individual decisions, there’s only so much positive change we can bring by recycling and composting household waste, reducing our use of fossil fuels or buying sustainably sourced products for our families. These choices can help, but the choices of individual households alone won’t make the world reverse its path toward catastrophic climate change.

Where our voices are most powerful is in the collective — where we can make change in our communities, our workplaces, our places of worship. What’s needed is societal transformation, and we can’t be afraid to use our voices to push for that change.

Health care institutions, including The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, have a responsibility to the people they serve by doing what’s possible to reduce the industry’s outsized carbon footprint — some estimates place it at 9-10% of U.S. total emissions. If the global health care industry were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter on the planet. This is a scale that can make real change. And to top it off, physicians and nurses are often the most trusted communicators about climate change.

Because of this, we’re getting to work to integrate sustainable practices throughout our health care operations. Some examples of what we’ve been able to accomplish here at Ohio State are, at their core, the result of individuals using their ingenuity to make conscientious choices on a large scale, in a place where nearly 25,000 people work, more than 5,000 babies are born each year and about 63,000 patients are admitted to the hospital annually.

Reducing unnecessary waste

Think about every bit of waste generated throughout the course of your workday or during a large group meeting or service at your church. How can you collectively prevent some of that from going to a landfill? At the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, for example, we’ve implemented programs to reduce the use of blue sterilization wrap by investing in rigid containers to alternatively store medical instruments, and then when that material needs to be used, recycle that material — more than 5 tons since the program began. In just the 2021 fiscal year, we diverted nearly 160 tons of food waste from the landfill by using a special digester, composting food and donating more than 10 tons of prepared food to the Mid-Ohio Food Collective and other local programs.

Making sustainable choices in goods and services

Many organizations and companies have multiple businesses that they partner with to provide various goods and services. As a collective group, you have some power as the consumer of those goods and services to choose businesses that meet certain criteria.

You could make it a priority to buy food that’s sourced locally, or buy products that are made from sustainable forestry practices or from recycled and recyclable materials. Often, these choices not only benefit the environment, but they can save organizations money — at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, 80% of all materials installed in our construction projects meet special sustainability criteria, and it’s both helped us see both immediate cost savings and will lead to additional savings over the life cycle of those materials. Additionally, we’re now buying back some of that recycled blue sterilization wrap in the form of bedpans.

Championing cleaner, more renewable energy sources

We know that, aside from being nonrenewable, fossil fuels produce emissions that create air pollution and are linked to numerous health conditions.

The cleanest energy is that which we don't use, but the source of that energy also matters — especially at a large institution with 24/7 energy needs. The Ohio State University invested in a partnership to improve energy efficiency and continues to explore additional investment in renewable energy.

Engaging and educating one another

When big decisions lead to momentous, positive change, it’s not always easy to pinpoint how many people influenced that decision. Did someone on a well-placed committee recently have a conversation with a relative about the long-term damages of fossil fuels? Was a decision-maker inspired by a fourth-grade teacher’s lesson on landfills?

Our actions have ripple effects through everyone we encounter. We’re stronger together. At the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, more than 700 employees join forces to lead “green” practices in their respective departments and share knowledge, ideas and resources through the Green Team Employee Resource Group. Other operational leaders are engaged through the Sustainability Council, the waste workgroup and the energy workgroup. It’s in these spaces where some of our organization’s most impactful decisions start as kernels of ideas.

What can you do when you combine your voice with others in your community to make powerful, lasting change?

Want to know more about sustainable practices at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center?

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