Greenhouse gas emissions are resulting in increasingly dangerous environmental events and public health consequences — and are leading to a growing awakening of medical professionals and providers. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), climate change has a range of complex health impacts, including temperature-related illness and death, injuries and illnesses due to extreme weather events, the spread of infectious disease vectors, increases in water borne illnesses, and wide-ranging impacts from air pollution. The WHO estimates that climate change is already contributing to 150,000 deaths per year.
Health professionals are going to be on the front lines of any climate-related disaster, responding to public health impacts. Overall, the need to treat illness and disease due to climate-related changes in our environment will continue to increase. At the same time, the healthcare industry will experience the climate crisis in its own operations, characterized by dramatically increasing energy costs, projected instability in the electric service provision grid, and intensified stressors placed on community health services, especially in times of disaster. On a direct financial level, energy costs are already squeezing operating margins and hijacking monies needed for other critical healthcare issues — many of which will only worsen due to future climate change.
In order to avert this coming crisis, it is crucial that the health sector develops an educated, effective voice in the climate policymaking process. Clinicians are recognized as trusted experts on health-related issues, not only in the doctor's office, but in society as well. To participate in this debate effectively, health professionals need to fully understand the science, be able to critically analyze real policy options, and express the health benefits of addressing climate change in concise, powerful terms that politicians will hear and act upon. Health system leaders can also derive powerful motivation from successful efforts to clean up their own house.
The healthcare sector is itself a major energy user. A European hospital consumes on average 300 Kw of thermal and over 100 Kw, of electrical energy per square meter per hour, considering that the European healthcare sector counts 15,000 hospitals this represents an expense of 10% of the GDP and accounts for 5% of CO2 emissions.
The National Health Service (NHS) Sustainable Development Unit in the UK has calculated its carbon footprint at more than 18 million tonnes of CO2 each year — 25% of total public spending. Despite missing data from other EU countries, it would appear safe to assume that other healthcare systems in Europe are also using large amounts of energy.