Experts at annual climate center symposium urge healthcare professionals to be the change they want to see.

Speakers at the fifth annual Climate Change symposium all agreed:  that healthcare professionals can and must be an important voice in the fight to end climate change. 

The April 1 virtual event, co-sponsored by the MGH Institute’s Center for Climate Change, Climate Justice, and Health, Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Climate Justice and Health, and Brigham and Women’s Council on Climate and Sustainability, attracted more than 200 attendees from around the world, including Australia, Taiwan, and the UAE. 

“We are pleased with the turnout,” said Suellen Breakey, the center’s associate director, who also served as the host and moderator. “The quality and diversity of the attendees and the presenters was outstanding.” 

Since the center was launched in 2017, it has grown both internally and externally. In addition to its annual symposium, the center co-hosts monthly webinars with Mass General, provides public education, research and scholarship, and advocates for government policies that promote sustainability. 

“One of the Center’s most important roles is prevention,” said Dr. Patrice Nicholas, founding director of the Institute’s center. “Research has shown that four in 10 people are now at risk for early death due to climate change. As healthcare professionals, we’re working to prepare our students for this reality.”  

Students in the School of Nursing’s bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral program learn about the dangers of climate change to human health. Bachelor of Science in Nursing and Master of Science in Nursing students learn about the effects of climate mitigation in ethics classes, while Doctor of Nursing Practice students are exposed to the subject by attending the climate symposium. 

According to Nicholas, partnerships developed with Mass General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital have proven invaluable. “They have strengthened our offerings to our students while also raising visibility of the important work being done at our Center,” she said.  

While Nicholas admits the work to combat climate change is imposing, and has a long way to go, she remains optimistic. “Being on the frontlines, healthcare professionals need to be well-trained to recognize the effects of climate change on health because they have the opportunity to be a powerful voice to foster change,” she said. “We want to empower every healthcare professional who graduates from the IHP to be a voice for climate change.” 

Changing Global Systemic Problems 

The symposium featured two keynote speakers. Dr. Carlos A. Faerron Guzman, director of the Centro Interamicano para la Salud Global in Costa Rica, associate director of Planetary Health Alliance at Harvard’s School of Public Health, and a faculty member in the Department of Oral Health Policy and Epidemiology at Harvard University, gave attendees a “40,000-foot view” of the “Anthropogenic Era” the world is currently combatting. 

“There are eight billion people on the planet, so humans have to get better at extracting energy, finding water, and growing agriculture in order to care and feed the planet’s population,” Guzman said.  

However, the technological advances required to accomplish that have seriously damaged the planet, from Co2 emissions to water shortages to rising sea levels to the destruction of biodiversity, the last of which is more serious than the media gives attention to.  

“The dramatic increase in animal extinctions will have a profound effect on our planet,” warned Guzman, who also offered some encouragement. “The progress we made with feeding the planet shows that we humans are capable of solving systemic global problems. It’s well past time that we apply our ingenuity to climate change and correct the existential damage we’re causing.”  

Hope Creates Movements 

Dr. Barbara Sattler, professor emeritus of nursing at the University of San Francisco, and a founding member of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, focused her talk on the impact individuals can make. 

"As healthcare workers, we are trusted voices so we must speak out, write op-eds, get involved, and educate our patients on the specific health dangers that climate change causes – something the media rarely covers,” she said. “Get active, join the green team at work, join a local or statewide coalition. Move yourself up into the realm of change makers. And if you’re already engaged, challenge yourself to move up a level.” 

Sattler also stressed the importance of community and how it fosters resiliency. She advised the audience to pay more attention to a growing sense of loneliness in their patients. “What makes people unhealthy are social determinants like racism, loneliness, and an unhealthy environment,” Sattler said.  

Sattler pointed to healthcare itself as a growing problem. “U. S. healthcare is two times more expensive than any other health care system in the world. Today, we have an epidemic of chronic diseases. Ten percent of all deaths in the U.S. are medical errors, and four out of 10 Americans have serious medical debt. Add climate change to those problems, and quite suddenly you have a dangerous overload of the healthcare system.” 

She noted how extreme weather events brought on by climate change can affect patients who live hundreds, even thousands of miles away. “The smoke from California’s wildfires did not go to heaven, it went into our lungs,” said Sattler. “People in Massachusetts were the recipients of a lot of smoke from California.” 

Sattler called for phasing out all gas and diesel vehicles by 2030, urged attendees to lobby their healthcare organizations to divest from fossil fuels, and advocated for more plant-based diets to reduce chronic diseases and change how agriculture processes.  

Happiness as a Game Changer 

Dr. Ann-Christine Duhaime, associate director of Mass General’s Center for the Environment and Health, a senior pediatric neurosurgeon at Mass General, and a distinguished professor of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School, pointed out that the average American generates 20 tons of CO2 per year, while the worldwide average is five tons. For context, she said U. S. citizens need to reduce that to two tons, or a 90% decrease, to keep the planet within 1.5 degree Celsius of its current temperature.  

“Part of the challenge we face with climate change is that our brains aren’t wired to even notice it, which makes climate problems harder to solve,” said Duhaime, who notes that pro-environmental behavior is not particularly rewarding, nor can people see immediate, tangible results from becoming more green -- something her most recent book Minding the Climate, explores in depth.  

“For millennia, we humans would constantly seek, find, and store nutrition, and we could consume in excess without personal consequences,” said Duhaime, who then pointed at salt and fat, which humans need for survival. “Today, however, there is so much salt and fat in our diets that it’s shortening people’s lives and delivering a poor quality of life on top of it.”  

But she proposed an answer: a new way of happiness. “Research has shown that it’s not ‘owning stuff’ that makes us happy long-term,” she said. “It’s relationships, problem solving, and altruism. Those three things create genuine and long-term happiness. Those are also three important traits needed to combat climate change.”  

Duhaime challenged attendees to beginning rewiring their own reward systems to align more with the altruistic benefits needed to combat climate change. “Most of us went into healthcare to be more altruistic,” said Duhaime. “So, we already have a head start. Now just elevate your awareness of how you feel when you begin to make personal changes to combat climate change.” 

Healthcare Systems, Heal Thyself 

Dr. Elizabeth Schenk, executive director of environmental stewardship at Providence Healthcare, focused on how healthcare has become one of the leading contributors to greenhouse gas and global pollution. 

“The planet, and particularly our oceans, are drowning in plastic and waste,” said Schenk, who’s a registered nurse. “Healthcare, with its much-needed focus on infection prevention, generates a tremendous amount to waste.” To combat this, said Schenk, requires an enterprise-wide approach to change the way care is provided. An example: her healthcare system has a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2030, a challenge it is  taking seriously.        

Babies, Not Bears 

“The image of climate change shouldn’t be polar bears, but pregnant bellies.”  

That was the message from Dr. Bruce Bekkar, a member of the Leadership Circle Executive Committee of Climate for Health at EcoAmerica, and chair emeritus of the Public Health Advisory Council in San Diego.  

The image of polar bears and their eroding habitat has been the face of climate change for decades now. But a more compelling image, Bekkar believes, is pregnant women and their babies because the effects of climate change are already negatively impacting them by the millions. 

“It’s time to rethink the messaging behind our climate-change efforts,” he said. “We need to reach more people with more tangible images that show how climate change harms your life and the health of all people.” 

After the speakers finished, attendees had an opportunity to attend three breakout sessions where they could interact on a more personal level with the presenters, as well as with Dr. Elizabeth Pinsky, associate director for advocacy at the MGH Center for Environment and Health and a founding member of Climate Code Blue;  Seema Gandhi, medical director of sustainability at UCSF Health, and Dr. Vi Nguyen, co-founder of San Diego Pediatricians for Clean Air, who served as panelists for these discussion groups. 

Wynne Armand, associate director of the MGH Center for the Environment and Health and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School; and Dr. Gregg Furie, medical director for Climate and Sustainability and a primary care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, were instrumental in organizing and planning the symposium.   


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