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By Jamie Durana

Climate change is increasingly recognized as a public health crisis. From rising rates of heat-related and respiratory illness to hospitals and clinics left without power during severe storms, communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis are already facing the associated health consequences. Responding to this crisis represents an opportunity for the health sector to leverage its trusted voice to drive transformative action and safeguard human health. This overarching message emerged over two National Academy of Medicine (NAM) Earth Week events focused on the link between climate and health, a virtual convening on addressing research gaps and the first-ever Climate and Health Day held as part of the US Climate Action Summit. Leaders across sectors came together to discuss several interconnected strategies, including rapidly scaling a “climate-savvy” health workforce, centering the experience and expertise of frontline communities, and breaking down institutional silos to launch bold, cross-cutting approaches to advance resilience and mitigation efforts.

Victor Dzau. Photo credit: Vijay Iyer

In opening remarks at Climate and Health Day, Bechara Choucair, Kaiser Permanente, emphasized the need for multi-sectoral action: “There is no one entity, no one government 鈥 no one organization [that] can make a difference by itself. We all need to roll up our sleeves and work together to be able to make an impact.” Focusing on health is vital for fostering that kind of broad collaboration, noted Victor Dzau, NAM. He explained that health sector organizations are essential players because they have a mission to protect the health and well-being of the communities they serve, but also account for almost 10% of carbon emissions in the United States. Dzau emphasized that fostering collective action among these organizations can create a turning point in the fight to address climate-related health impacts. During Climate and Health Day, he announced a new NAM initiative to accelerate the national climate and health movement and invited all health-related organizations to engage in the initiative鈥檚 collaborative network.

A Time for Bold Action

Vanessa Kerry. Photo credit: Vijay Iyer

Speakers at both NAM events emphasized that the scope of the public health and equity crises posed by climate change demands a robust research agenda paired with ambitious, innovative action. Ali Zaidi, White House Climate Policy Office, described large-scale efforts like and that can drive systemic change. Zaidi noted that 96% of the new U.S. electric capacity being added in 2024 is coming from renewable sources. Jonathan Perlin, The Joint Commission, presented a framework for individual hospitals to work toward reducing emissions. The commission’s helps hospitals set environmental sustainability goals and measure progress. Perlin stressed the importance of common standards to help hospitals “move from concept to action” in reducing the health sector’s carbon footprint.

Vanessa Kerry, World Health Organization and Seed Global Health, warned that the climate crisis takes a toll through indirect pathways like economic insecurity and strained health systems. Kerry emphasized that 鈥渕eeting the moment鈥 will require breaking down traditional silos and “thinking differently and boldly across sectors.” Embracing new and “unprecedented ways” of multi-sectoral collaboration is critical because, Kerry explained, “nothing is too ambitious” to address the scale of this crisis. Investing in workforce development is integral to building health system resilience. 鈥淲e have to use every lever we have to be transformational, to create the strong responsive health systems we need and the health workforce that is foundational to it,鈥 Kerry said.

Building a Climate-Savvy Workforce

Addressing the public health impacts of climate change calls for rapidly upskilling the health care workforce to understand the causes, effects, and opportunities for mitigation. 鈥淗ealth professionals are the most trusted category of professionals in America and around the world today,鈥 explained Edward Maibach, George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication, which provides an important opportunity to help create change in communities nationwide. 鈥淭rust is our superpower,鈥 he said. When health workers talk about the effects that climate change is having on the health of their patients and communities, it offers the public鈥攁nd, critically, policymakers鈥攁 new and more personal perspective.

Research is needed to understand the most effective methods for providing health professionals with the resources they need to become climate-savvy. Beth Schenk, Providence, noted that surveys over the last few years have shown that many clinicians feel overwhelmed. Schenk shared some strategies for addressing this reality. Exploring targeted and succinct messaging with clear calls to action can help busy professionals, adding that attending to health worker mental health and well-being must go hand in hand with efforts. The speakers highlighted the need for a multidisciplinary response. Renee N. Salas, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, explained that “facilitating research at the scale and speed required demands coordinated response across public health, medicine, communities, governments, and beyond.”

Cheryl Holder. Photo credit: Vijay Iyer

There is a growing number of data-driven resources to equip clinicians. Resources speakers shared included the that provides forecasts based on local health outcomes data and the quantifying where and how populations are impacted by unhealthy air quality levels. However, complementing these data with patient narratives is critical to driving action, noted Cheryl Holder, Florida Clinicians for Climate Action. Holder said, as clinicians, 鈥渨e must start with the stories our patients tell,鈥 and described a patient whose asthma worsened during a heat wave, leaving her needing more medication and a daunting electric bill. Joshua Weil, Kaiser Permanente, shared firsthand experiences evacuating his hospital when a devastating wildfire ripped through Santa Rosa, California.

With their credibility, health professionals can have a crucial role in driving climate action but making the most of this opportunity requires targeted, multidisciplinary research investments. Combining hard data with patient and health worker testimonies of how the climate crisis disrupts communities and lives is crucial to conveying the urgency of the challenge at hand.

Placing Communities at the Center

Centering the voices, lived experience, and priorities of communities on the frontlines can effectively communicate the toll of climate change on public health. Shasta Gaughen, Pala Band of Mission Indians, emphasized that, for Indigenous groups, there is an inextricable link between environmental and cultural preservation. Gaughen noted the disruptions to traditional food sources like acorns, wild rice, and shellfish, explaining that research gaps persist in understanding the impact on health and well-being. Gabriela Lemus, Maryland Latinos Unidos, underscored that Latine communities鈥 disproportionate exposure to air and water pollution are exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Raymond Sweet, Hollygrove Dixon Neighborhood Association, revealed some of the local manifestations of climate threats that data alone cannot effectively capture. In his New Orleans neighborhood, the urban heat island effect leads residents to make the choice between risking their health or facing high utility bills to cool their homes.

(l-r) Nathaniel Smith, Sacoby Wilson, Funmi Chinekezi. Photo credit: Vijay Iyer

Currently and historically marginalized communities are often those that bear the brunt of severe storms, excessive heat, and other effects driven by climate change. Maureen Lichtveld, University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, noted that increased investment and better data are needed to help frontline communities “prevent and prepare” for growing climate threats. One strategy bearing success comes from community health centers (CHCs), or federally qualified health centers, which make up the 鈥渓argest network of safety net primary care providers in the United States鈥 and serve more than 31 million people each year, said Jessica Hinshaw, National Association of Community Health Centers. Hinshaw described one innovative model for climate action: . The hub, powered by solar microgrids to maintain cooling, food access, and other essential services during extreme weather events, showcases a replicable community-level opportunity. With coalitions and networks representing frontline communities already developing solutions, Sacoby Wilson, University of Maryland School of Public Health, explained that there is ample opportunity for potential collaborators and funders to partner with these trusted and committed 鈥渁nchor institutions.鈥 Funmi Chinekezi, National Academy of Medicine, highlighted the work the NAM is doing through the Climate Communities Network (CCN), which was built around the idea that community voices 鈥渟hould be key drivers for solutions.鈥 The CCN is a collaborative model that aims to ensure communities have better access to key resources and decision makers.

Meaningful climate solutions must be rooted in authentic collaborations that center local expertise and priorities to build capacity for communities to lead adaptation and mitigation efforts. Only by addressing systemic and structural inequities can the health sector achieve just and equitable climate protections, creating a world 鈥渨here your zip code does not determine your lifespan,鈥 as Lemus said.


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