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Why the Climate Crisis Matters for Health Centers and What We Can Do About It

On August 9th, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released part of its latest assessment report. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless the world immediately institutes rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the next two decades.  Every additional 0.5°C of global warming causes increasing intensity and frequency of heatwaves and heavy precipitation as well as droughts. Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.  

If we fail to reduce carbon emissions, hopes to avoid permanent tipping points “will be beyond reach.” U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres described the report as “a code red for humanity.”  “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk,” Guterres said. 

More frequent and strong storms and flooding, and extreme heat events, wildfires and poorer air quality will increase food and water shortages creating a shift in populations “climate refugees” from within and outside of the US. The greatest impacts are expected in 2050 and beyond, which means that children in our pediatric clinics will experience the brunt of the human-caused impacts for most of their lives.   

At first glance, this may seem outside the scope of health centers; however, the climate crisis is impacting poor and marginalized populations disproportionately even though they have contributed the least to its cause. Individuals experiencing homelessness and agricultural workers are at the most acute risk.   

What can health centers do?  Section 330 charges health centers to act on issues impacting air and water quality of the patients served.  Here are a few tangible actions: 

  • Collaborate with local emergency management on plans for preparation, response, and disaster recovery. 
  • Teach your patients with respiratory conditions to monitor the Air Quality Index (AQI) and avoid being outside as much as possible.  Use text alerts from your patient portal to notify patients of critical heat and air quality warnings. 
  • Make sure health center patients have a plan in the event of flooding and wildfires, including copies of important documents and emergency contacts. 
  • Use health center data on asthma, heart disease, vector borne diseases, etc. in public health surveillance activities. 
  • Support community efforts to provide low-income people with air conditioners and alternative clean power sources (solar and wind) at the individual or community level to reduce power expenses. 
  • Help families adopt plant-based diets to improve their health now and prepare for a more limited set of dietary options in the future. 
  • Partner with other CBOs on local transportation initiatives that reduce the need for use of individual cars. 
  • In the facilities, change to LED bulbs, installing smart thermostats, and unplugging electronic devices that are not in use can lower the health center’s utility costs. Consider installing solar panels with backup batteries on clinic sites to restore operations more quickly after storms and lower everyday utility costs. 
  • Use clinically appropriate telemedicine to improve care access for families who have transportation difficulties or live far from clinics. 

Let’s not allow the daunting conclusions of the IPCC report to diminish our work to protect our patients living in harm’s way.  

Ben Money, is Senior Vice President of Public Health Priorities at NACHC.

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