At the Paris climate talks Nov. 30-Dec.12, NIEHS played a key role in highlighting the potential impacts of climate change on health and health care facilities. The topic received more attention than ever before, according to John Balbus, M.D., NIEHS senior health advisor and a participant in several events.
U.S. demonstrates importance of health effects
The United States helped ensure that health was part of the conversation in Paris, Balbus said. A Dec. 2 event, “Healthy People, Healthy Planet: U.S. Programs and Partnerships for Health Resilience,” was co-organized by Balbus and colleagues at the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and State, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The U.S. Center at the Paris Climate Conference, where the event was held, saw fierce competition for available time slots. “The event helped demonstrate to the rest of the world that the U.S. cares enough to feature health at its center,” Balbus said.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., provided opening remarks. He was followed by HHS Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs Jimmy Kolker, NOAA Chief Scientist Rick Spinrad, Ph.D, U.S. Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change Karen Florini, J.D., and Balbus.
Tools to foster resilience and sustainability
Health care facilities can be vulnerable to extreme weather events, which are expected to increase as the climate changes, Balbus explained during his talk. Therefore, the U.S. government is making resources available, including the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, to help facilities be more resilient.
Jeffrey Thompson, M.D., CEO of Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, Wisconsin, described how the toolkit helped Gundersen take actions that combined resilience and sustainability.
“We’re supposed to keep people healthy, to improve the health and well-being of people in our communities, and our energy supply was not doing that,” Thompson said, pointing to carbon dioxide emissions and particulate matter, which is associated with asthma. “We wanted to not only reduce our impact, but we wanted to lower the cost of health care and improve the local economy…. And we have,” he said.
The role of the health care sector
Balbus also touched on the Sustainable and Climate Resilient Health Care Facilities initiative in his remarks. The initiative is a collaboration NIEHS participates in with Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition of health care facilities and related organizations.
Health Care Without Harm sponsored a Dec. 3 Health Care Climate Leadership Roundtable, with representatives from international climate and health care organizations, including Balbus, who made a presentation at the event. Participants discussed how health sector groups across the world can work together to increase their engagement with climate change. They hope to achieve a greater impact by focusing on mitigation, resilience, and leadership.
Other events included a daylong meeting focused on educational leadership on climate change and health, co-sponsored by the White House and the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Balbus spoke at that event, as well as at a climate and health summit organized by the Global Climate and Health Alliance, in partnership with the World Health Organization and other governmental and nongovernmental institutions.
The 2015 Paris Climate Conference, also known as COP21, or the 21st Conference of Parties, hammered out a final agreement that set a 2 degree Celsius target for global temperature rise. The health organizations present helped assure that the agreement also highlighted health as a human right and as a critical area of co-benefits of climate action — concepts that helped support the outcomes achieved in Paris, Balbus said.