Climate change and health: Be a part of the solution

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The Lancet Commission identified climate change as the greatest threat to public health. The health care sector in the United States alone contributes almost 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which lead to climate change which is harmful to human health.

The health impacts of our changing climate include increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and early deaths from extreme weather, food- and water-borne illnesses, infectious diseases, and mental illness.

“Part of that comes from 24/7 operations and hospitals use a tremendous amount of energy and water,” says Brenda Nissley, manager of environmental sustainability and waste at Harborview Medical Center.

“Whatever we can do to reduce our energy usage, water usage, and reduce our waste and resource use, then that all helps to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”

The Nurses Climate Challenge is a national campaign to mobilize nurses to educate 50,000 health professionals on the impacts of climate change on human health by 2022. Nurse Climate Champions across the country commit to taking action to protect the health of patients and communities from the health impacts of climate change, educating colleagues and leaders within their facilities regarding this issue along the way.

“The Challenge provides everything somebody would need to help train their fellow nurses,” Nissley says.

The Challenge is sponsored by Health Care Without Harm and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHA). It is the first national campaign aiming to leverage the unique and trusted voice of nurses to motivate the health care sector to action. Comprehensive resources for educational outreach are available at no cost after registering to become a Nurse Climate Champion.

The goals of the Nurses Climate Challenge are to:

  • Mobilize nurses across the country to educate a total of 50,000 of their colleagues about the impacts of climate change on human health.
  • Build a national network of informed and more engaged health professionals in care settings.
  • Launch a movement of health professionals committed to climate solutions in care settings and in the community.

The Challenge’s initial goal was to educate 5,000 healthcare professionals by May 2019. As of today, 9,452 health care professionals have been educated by close to 600 Nurse Climate Champions. Only 21 of the current champions are in the state of Washington, but Brenda Nissley is hoping the nursing staff across UW medical entities can swell that number in months to come.

The impact of climate change in Washington will extend to extreme temperatures, wildfires, and peoples’ mental health and wellbeing, based on results from the US Global Change Research program.

“Sometimes it’s the small things,” Nissley says. “Harborview has more than 5,000 employees. The University of Washington as a whole has far more than that. So if all those people did a few things and combined it all together, that’s a huge impact.”

While UW Medical Center and Harborview Medical Center are both top-25 members of Practice Greenhealth, the leading membership and networking organization for sustainable health care, delivering environmental solutions to hospitals and health systems across the United States, Nissley says “there’s much more that could be done” on an individual level.

And while UW engineers are always working to reduce energy usage by such measures as replacing old equipment and installing LED lights, what nursing staff can do daily—such as turning off the lights in a room that isn’t occupied, using reusable linens, or being conscious about recycling and composting—compounds to make a real difference.

“The power of one can transform into the power of many,” says Nissley. “The cycle of what we do here impacts climate change, which impacts our environment, which then impacts our patients. Environmental health and human health are one in the same.”

If you are an RN, join the Nurses Climate Challenge and become a Nurse Climate Champion to support one another and the earth.