As climate change continues impacting public health, the crisis will increasingly strain health systems’ capacity and care costs. The health care sector itself generates 8.5% of the U.S.’ carbon pollution emissions. If the U.S. health care sector was a country, it would rank 13th globally for greenhouse gas emissions, ahead of the U.K.
Climate change has devastating impacts on the health and well-being of New Jersey communities. Fossil fuel pollution is estimated to cause 10.2 million premature deaths globally, affecting every organ. It increases lung cancer risk, worsens heart and lung disease and contributes to autoimmune disease. There are effects on kidney disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. It has been associated with preterm birth, low birth weight and stillbirth. We see asthma exacerbations in our children and dementia in our elderly, not to mention the health impacts of extreme weather events, such as heat, flooding and hurricanes.
This is why medical and health professionals worldwide embrace the World Health Organization’s position that climate change is the 21st century’s greatest threat to human health. Last spring, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the White House launched an initiative to mobilize the U.S. health care sector and drive down greenhouse gas emissions. By signing, health systems pledge to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030, achieve net-zero by 2050, and publicly report annual progress. As of November 2022, 102 organizations nationwide representing more than 830 hospitals signed the pledge. In New Jersey, Atlantic Health System, CentraState Healthcare System, Englewood Health, Hackensack Meridian Health, RWJBarnabas Health and the Valley Health System signed.
This is encouraging news, and we very much applaud these health organizations that stepped up. We agree with U.S. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, who said, “The organizations that signed the pledge are demonstrating to the health sector that climate-smart investments are not only possible, but are becoming standard for the industry.”
But this is just a start, and it’s not enough. We need every health system in New Jersey to make the same commitment to reduce emissions and follow through on these objectives.
We also need New Jersey’s health care sector to join broader conversations about the public health crisis looming beyond hospital walls. Medical systems and health professionals must support state policies and programs that protect the health and well-being of our children and communities. That means supporting comprehensive legislation committing New Jersey to an equitable, pro-worker clean energy future; equitable transportation policies that modernize public transportation and fund pedestrian-oriented improvements supporting biking and walking; and development of offshore wind transmission.
Air pollution from fossil fuels in our industrial hubs and transportation corridors is an urgent environmental, health and equity issue disproportionately burdening many New Jersey residents. More than 600,000 adults and 167,000 children in New Jersey have asthma, with asthma-related hospitalizations highest in Cumberland, Camden and Essex counties. About one in every three Newark children have asthma, a rate three times higher than the national average. Those children are hospitalized for asthma at 30 times the national rate.
Clean energy improves health and decreases cost. Provisions in the federal Inflation Reduction Act will significantly reduce emissions of conventional air pollutants such as particulate matter, averting as many as 3,900 premature deaths, 100,000 asthma attacks and 417,000 lost workdays per year by 2030 nationwide. Energy investment within systems themselves can be coupled with smart state policies and programs to reduce hospitals’ operational expenses.
The future of our children and our communities is at stake. Millions of medical and health professionals worldwide, including the Clinicians for Climate Action New Jersey, have been raising alarm bells for years. It’s time for New Jersey’s health sector to respond to that call. If they don’t, these issues will be exacerbated, furthering widespread harm. New Jersey’s health care sector is the second-largest employer in the state. Who is better positioned to lead the charge?
Dr. Catherine Chen and Dr. Steven Averbuch are Clinicians for Climate Action New Jersey members. Their views do not necessarily reflect those of their employers.