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Opinion | George Q. Daley, Ashish Jha, and Aaron Bernstein

Climate change threatens public health and doctors’ ability to provide care

Protesters prepare to march for at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) summit, Dec. 8, in Katowice, Poland.
Protesters prepare to march for at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) summit, Dec. 8, in Katowice, Poland. Janek SKARZYNSKI /AFP/Getty Images

The reality of climate change — and the need to combat it — could not be clearer.

As health care professionals, we know that climate change harms those we seek to heal and we recognize that it compromises our ability to provide care.

The more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that enter our atmosphere, the more difficult it is to do our jobs. For example, in late 2017, Hurricane Maria incapacitated a factory in Puerto Rico that produces small-volume intravenous fluid bags. As a result, hospitals around the country, including Harvard teaching hospitals, struggled to provide patients with essential IV fluids and medications well into 2018.

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Climate change is producing more dangerous extreme weather events such as hurricanes, severe storms, and heat waves that expose vulnerabilities in our health care system beyond the supply chain. Severe storms can damage infrastructure and knock out power, making it difficult to care for patients.

Health care professionals know that climate change has made providing care for our patients more difficult, and it is critical that our patients and our communities know this as well. Our hospitals and institutes have been taking substantial measures to prepare for climate change: building more resilient buildings, making evacuation and critical service contingency plans, and stockpiling essential supplies, to name a few. But we know that these measures can never fully safeguard our operations and patients from the full effects of climate change. To better protect what we do in health care requires aggressive reductions in carbon emissions.

Our commitment to decarbonize health care is also about our responsibility to our patients’ health and the communities we serve. Burning less fossil fuel in power plants, buildings, and cars means less air pollution, and less air pollution means fewer heart attacks and strokes, fewer asthma attacks, less lung cancer, and better pregnancy outcomes.

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So when we encourage more walking and better public transit, when we find ways to make our operations more energy efficient, and when we sign power-purchase agreements that help build new wind and solar farms, we improve air quality and make our patients and their communities healthier.

We have also committed to ensuring that every student who walks through the doors of Harvard Medical School learns about climate change and what it means for the health of their patients and their future careers as physicians.

We are not alone in our efforts. Health care organizations and medical schools around the country are taking similar steps. As more physicians and nurses articulate why climate change matters to them and to the people they care for, we expect that many more people will come to understand — as we do — that actions to combat climate change cannot wait.


George Q. Daley is dean of Harvard Medical School. Ashish Jha is director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. Aaron Bernstein is assistant faculty director of the Climate Change and Health Initiative at Harvard Global Health Institute.