It’s time for the health care industry to raise its voice on climate change

Businesses serious about improving health should be serious about climate, too, says Leo Raudys, adjunct faculty, corporate sustainability, University of Minnesota.

pollen field
Plants grown in today’s carbon dioxide concentrations produce about twice as much pollen as those grown in the last century, exacerbating pollen allergies. NH /

The new Clean Power Plan, stunning in its audacity, will undoubtedly face many hurdles in the coming years. Yet already it has achieved something no other major climate initiative has been able to do. It has reframed the climate conversation to put the focus squarely on the health of humans.

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard of links between a warming climate and public health. But the information presented by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is clearer and more direct than we’ve ever seen at a major policy level. Which is a good thing, because understanding the problems associated with longer allergy seasons is a lot easier than getting your head around rising sea levels, mass extinctions and other effects that will be largely experienced by future generations.

What’s also been changing is how corporations are viewing this issue. Hundreds of companies have stepped up to support the new rule. However, the truly interesting action is taking place outside the boundaries of the new regulation, by companies that have realized decarbonizing their value chains is good business and represents the surest way to long-term growth. Ironically, the health care industry isn’t among the leaders in this area, even though it will be among those most affected by the clear and dire risks climate change poses to human health.

Whether we’re talking about for-profit med tech and insurance giants or nonprofit health systems, ultimately, the mission is the same: improving the lives of people. Arguably, the companies and institutions whose mission it is to make the world a healthier place have an obligation to do more to address one of the largest threats to health humankind has ever seen.

The [tech] industry is now forging ahead with some of the most aggressive actions we’ve seen on climate from the business community.

The U.S. Upper Midwest, with its long record of innovation and success in this field, is well positioned to take the lead on addressing the threats of climate change to human health. In Minnesota alone, publicly traded companies engaged in med tech and health insurance have a combined market capitalization of nearly US$400 billion. Annual revenues are north of US$200 billion. Add in nonprofit health systems with billions more in revenues a year, and a picture emerges of an economic powerhouse.

Some companies in the region seem to understand the need to act more aggressively around climate change. In recent years, 3M and Ecolab have made shifts in their approach to issues such as climate change and supply chain sustainability. It’s clear from such moves that these are topics of conversation in their boardrooms and C-suites. In the health care delivery community, Oakland, California–based health care consortium Kaiser Permanente should be commended for its effort to emphasize improving the natural environment as a fundamental component of its mission to improve people’s lives. Beyond these clear leaders, a collection of companies is doing good but insufficient work to protect the environment. What’s still lacking is a commitment to aggressive innovation toward a more sustainable future.

One place health care could look for inspiration is the tech industry.

Not long ago, Silicon Valley was in the crosshairs of the environmental movement. Concerns were growing about how much energy was being used to power data centers, much of it from coal and other fossil fuels. At first, the industry tended to ignore the pressure. Then, somehow, in the proverbial blink of an eye, that changed. The industry is now forging ahead with some of the most aggressive actions we’ve seen on climate from the business community.

This past June, leaders in the tech industry gathered for the annual Energy and Sustainability Summit at Oracle headquarters to check on progress and discuss strategies. They reported that they’re investing billions in renewable energy and other sustainability initiatives. Importantly, we’re not talking about philanthropy. These companies expect returns in the form of lower supply chain risk, cheaper energy, and increased brand equity and customer acquisition.

What’s also important to keep in mind is that the tech industry seems to have come to the realization that the incrementalism that has thus far dominated the corporate sustainability movement is no longer adequate. What is necessary — and, indeed, what is taking place — is collective action by a number of smart companies that understand that the long-term health of their industry is intimately connected to clean and reliable energy in an increasingly carbon-constrained world.

This not only represents huge progress toward mitigating climate change, it also will give industries that are taking such bold action a competitive edge when it comes to talent and investment, as more than ever young people are entering the workforce with high expectations of employers. Companies whose values closely match their own will increasingly be more desirable choices for the most talented employees available.

The main reason the health care industry should look to act more boldly on issues stemming from climate change is because of its ultimate mission to make the world a healthier place.

Consider today’s STEM students in high school and college. Because of increased transparency on issues such as climate change and supply chain sustainability, they know more than their predecessors did about the companies and industries they’re evaluating as potential employers. When these students look around and see the Googles and Apples of the world committing billions of dollars to combat climate change, and compare them to other industries whose investments and goals are considerably less ambitious, over time we’ll see more of these values-driven STEM students gravitating away from industries like med tech and health care.

But the main reason the health care industry should look to act more boldly on issues stemming from climate change is because of its ultimate mission to make the world a healthier place. Climate change, as laid out most recently in the CPP, increasingly poses challenges to that very mission. In Minnesota alone, we’ve already seen the allergy season increase by up to 21 days from 1995 to 2013. And the effects are more intense, too. Plants grown in today’s carbon dioxide concentrations produce about twice as much pollen as those grown in the last century. As a result, more people are suffering and health care costs associated with these ailments are going up. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, increased heat waves are resulting in more deaths and hospital admissions. Health care organizations have begun to address these impacts through resilience planning that takes climate change into account, but more needs to be done.

To that end, there are three questions leaders of med tech companies, insurers and health care institutions should be asking themselves:

  • Given the threat climate change poses to the health of our customers and patients and to the stability of our supply chains, are we aggressively innovating to decarbonize our value chain?
  • Do we fully understand the cost implications of a changing climate to the health care system, and are we doing all we can to mitigate those costs with our own actions and the influence we have on society overall?
  • Do we fully understand the implications of the changing values of our future talent pool, and are we doing everything we can to position ourselves to be the employer of choice now and well into the future?

The new emphasis on human health and climate change presents a clear challenge and opportunity for the health care industry. Time will tell if the industry can get more aggressive on climate action, similar to the measures the tech industry is pursuing, and by doing so, move closer to fully realizing its mission of protecting people against the new health risks they’ll face in a new world.

Leo Raudys is adjunct faculty, corporate sustainability, University of Minnesota. This article is republished from Ensia.

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