Imagine a Healthier Tomorrow
By Alison H. Page
As we “imagine a healthier tomorrow” and prioritize the focus of work we need to do as a community and a society, one issue surfaces as a key priority. Put simply, climate change is the health care challenge of the century. Without doubt, it is the single biggest health threat facing humanity. All the things we need to support our basic health and safety are at risk as the planet warms.
Climate change is already impacting health in a myriad of ways, including by leading to death and illness from increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, storms, and floods; the disruption of food systems; increases in zoonoses (transfer of disease from animals to humans) and food, water, and vector-borne diseases; and mental health issues. Furthermore, climate change affects the social and environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter. It effects livelihoods, equality and access to health care and social support structures.
The financial impact of climate change will be substantial. Health care costs will escalate. We will have to divert our collective resources from the things we want to spend money on, like social infrastructure and economic development, to things we will be forced to spend money on, like physical infrastructure to protect human safety and systems to maintain access to clean water.
While no one will escape the impact of climate change, the people who will be harmed first and worst by the climate crisis are, ironically, the people who contribute least to its causes, and who are least able to protect themselves and their families against it – people in low-income and disadvantaged countries and communities. Climate-sensitive health risks are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, including women, children, ethnic minorities, poor communities, migrants or displaced persons, older populations, and those with underlying health conditions. Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, disease, and heat stress.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that to avert catastrophic health impacts and prevent millions of climate change-related deaths, the world must limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. Past emissions have already made a certain level of global temperature rise and other changes to the climate inevitable. Global heating of even 1.5°C is not considered safe, however; every additional tenth of a degree of warming will take a serious toll on people’s lives and health.
This is largely our problem to address. With just over 4% of the world’s population, the United States is responsible for almost a third of the excess CO2 that is heating the planet.
There is little time to address the issue of climate change. We need to act globally, locally, and personally to change course.
On a global level we must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases through better transport, food production and consumption, and energy-use choices.
It may be overwhelming to think about how we, as individuals, can impact things of this magnitude, but we can. We can pay attention to federal and state policy decisions and promote and engage with elected officials to support policies that will address climate change. We need federal and state support to put things like building a house using renewable energy sources, or driving an electric car, within the reach of all citizens, not just the wealthy.
On a local level we can have an even greater impact. We can, as a community, address climate change through local ordinances, building codes, and funding decisions that support businesses and families being able to implement sustainable energy options. Additionally, we can pursue community efforts that support the production of essential needs, like food, close to home. We can plant trees and support the development of community forests.
On an individual basis, there is much we can do. These things may seem like they will never be enough to make a difference, but collectively, they will. We can focus on how we construct, and heat and cool our homes; our transportation choices; the food we eat; and the things we buy.
In our homes, we can be more energy efficient with better insulation and windows. We can install solar, geo-thermal, and wind energy sources. We can use LED light bulbs and consume less water.
We can change our transportation habits by driving less, walking, and biking more. We can carpool if possible. We can transition to an electric vehicle as soon as we can afford to do so.
We can change what we eat to focus on a more plant-based diet. We can commit to buying food that is produced close to home.
We can change what we buy. Think: reduce, reuse, recycle. We can buy less and buy high quality items that are made of materials that will degrade naturally like wood toys versus plastic, or wool and cotton clothing versus polyester.
At Western Wisconsin Health, we exist to build a healthier tomorrow – together. We are committed to sustainability because it will help us all achieve that mission. Together, we can do this. Together, we can make a difference.