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Opinion | Kate Walsh and David Torchiana

Boston’s health care sector is on front line of climate readiness


The evidence is overwhelming: Climate change is the greatest health threat of the century, and health care is on its front line.

That’s particularly true in Boston, which studies show is one of the nation’s most climate-vulnerable cities. As medical professionals, we and our colleagues witness daily the growing danger that climate change poses to the health of people here in Boston. We see its impacts in our emergency rooms during extended heat waves, in treating more patients with asthma and other respiratory ailments, and in investments to make our facilities resilient to effects such as sea level rise. For those of us in health care, climate change is a real and proximate threat. And so the Trump administration’s decision this month does not change the trajectory we and other Boston businesses have pursued steadily for years. While the president may be pulling out of the Paris agreement, we are pushing forward.


A new report by Health Care Without Harm, in partnership with the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, details how combined energy-efficiency projects and 50 megawatts of new renewable-energy investments by our two institutions, Boston Medical Center and Partners HealthCare, are enabling metro Boston’s health care sector to deliver a 33 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (47 percent below business as usual). We are years ahead of meeting Boston’s and the Commonwealth’s goals of 25 percent reductions by 2020.

Moreover, our financial case for action is strong. Green power is cost-competitive, and since, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, every dollar in energy cost savings is equal to securing $20 in new patient revenue, Boston Medical Center’s 20-year energy savings alone is equivalent to $2.6 billion in patient revenue. We can reinvest these savings in patient care and research, and in vulnerability analyses and capital projects that increase resiliency.

Participation in the Green Ribbon Commission, a group of businesses, institutions, and civic leaders in Boston that is dedicated to this cause, has dramatically sharpened our understanding of the risks, responsibilities, and opportunities inherent in climate change. And we have taken action as a result. BMC is the largest safety net hospital with the busiest trauma center in New England, and with three-quarters of its patients coming from underserved populations, climate action is important to BMC’s mission of caring for the community while being fiscally responsible. The hospital has been nationally recognized for dramatically cutting energy use and neutralizing its electricity emissions and expects all its energy to be climate neutral by next year. Partners HealthCare has committed to practicing what the World Bank calls “climate-smart health care” — reducing energy consumption (by 21 percent through 2016) while increasing resiliency through renewable energy.

We’re well on our way, but there is much more for us all to do.

Boston is the fourth most climate-vulnerable city in the United States and the eighth most vulnerable worldwide in property risk. The region could take a $30 billion economic loss if a hurricane such as 2012’s Superstorm Sandy were to come ashore here, with infrastructure at risk ranging from food and water to the MBTA and utilities.


With political will and vision, our region can continue to be a national leader. We can combat the climate threat with smart policies that support cost-competitive renewable energy markets and resilient, clean infrastructure and transportation, helping us all be carbon free by 2050. In the health care sector, we are forming an alliance of Massachusetts hospitals to communicate our climate success stories and needs to policy makers. Similar efforts in other business sectors would build on momentum already underway.

Regardless of Washington’s actions, Boston has always stepped up to lead when it was most important to do so. Now is just such a time. We urge our fellow civic leaders to embrace the vision of Climate Ready Boston and set ambitious goals, such as BMC’s plans to be carbon neutral for all energy by 2018, with a campus that can operate in emergencies without grid power, and Partners’ plan to be carbon net positive system-wide by 2025, meaning that more green energy than needed is generated, with excess energy returned to the grid. Structures such as the Boston Green Ribbon Commission and A Better City’s aggregated renewable energy procurement initiatives support the goals of individual companies and amplify collective efforts.


Together we can be smarter, to everyone’s benefit, following our governor’s lead and heeding Mayor Martin Walsh’s bold words: “The City of Boston will not back down.”

Kate Walsh is the president and CEO of Boston Medical Center. Dr. David Torchiana is the president and CEO of Partners HealthCare. They are cochairs of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission Health Care Working Group.