“Hospitals and health systems from most every Clean Energy Ministerial country are participating in Health Care Without Harm’s 2020 Health Care Climate Challenge, demonstrating innovative ways to create low carbon health care that can be scaled across national systems,” said Sister Susan Vickers, Vice President of Community Health for Dignity Health (2020 Challenge participant), in her dinner address at the seventh Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM7).

http://www.cleanenergyministerial.org/Portals/2/EasyGalleryImages/1/712/CleanEnergyMinisterial_2.0LOGO.pngThis annual meeting of energy ministers and other high-level delegates from the 23 CEM member countries and the European Commission is an opportunity for the major economies to collaborate on solutions that advance clean energy globally and demonstrate tangible follow-up actions to COP21.

“We urge you to continue to be bold in addressing climate change, which we believe is the most pressing public health issue of our time,” said Susan Vickers.


Sister Susan Vickers of Dignity Health addresses ministers of energy from more than 20 countries at the Clean Energy Ministerial in San Francisco.

The full text of Susan Vickers’ speech at CEM 7 appears below:

Bringing the Full Weight of Health Care to the Climate Challenge

by: Susan Vickers, Dignity Health

Welcome to San Francisco. We at Dignity Health salute you and the important work you are doing in this Clean Energy Ministerial. We urge you to continue to be BOLD in addressing climate change, which we believe is the most pressing public health issue of our time.

In 2009 the Lancet Commission for Global Health, a collaboration between The Lancet medical journal and University College London, UK, concluded: “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” In 2015 a second Lancet Commission warned that climate change could undermine the last 50 years of development progress. 

On a more optimistic note, the Lancet also proclaimed that: “Tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century”.

Here is one example of that opportunity:

The main driver of climate change—the combustion of fossil fuels– is also the greatest contributor to air pollution.  The World Health Organization estimates that roughly 7 million deaths a year are caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution.  Transitioning away from fossil fuels toward clean, renewable energy could simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions; avoid many of the premature deaths attributed to air pollution and save billions in health care dollars.   That is a win-win-win scenario.

In California we are working to make this scenario a reality by transitioning to clean energy to tackle climate change, spur the economy and protect public health. We know we must act as California is already experiencing climate change effects including more frequent and severe heat waves, longer wildfire seasons, severe drought conditions, increasing air pollution,  and other threats to lung health.

Our youngest and most vulnerable residents will bear the brunt of worsening air quality brought on by climate change, affecting the breathing of thousands of children with asthma as well as thousands of adults with emphysema and heart disease.

As health care providers we have a special role and obligation to address this problem.

Gary Cohen, MacArthur fellow and founder of Health Care Without Harm, is fond of saying: health care is nearly 20% of the economy in the US and 10% of the global economy. But it is the only segment of our economy whose sole mission is to promote health and healing. With that in mind we urge you to look to the health care sector in your countries as allies in your determination to address climate change.

We recognize the paradox that the healthcare sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and we want to be a leading force in the transition to a low carbon economy.

Health care in the US is responsible for about 8% of our country’s greenhouse gas emissions. A large portion of these emissions come from our energy use.  While we don’t know the footprint of many countries’ health systems, we do know health care makes up about 10% of GDP worldwide, and in every country it consumes a significant amount of energy. Health care also holds the potential to help leverage a transition to clean energy because of both its size and its ability to be a credible messenger regarding the health benefits of this transition.

Doctors and nurses are typically trusted public spokespersons. They can help communicate that climate change is a serious public health hazard and can clarify what measures are needed to mitigate inevitable impacts.

For instance, in the US, Gundersen Health System, headquartered in Wisconsin, has achieved near total energy independence, making it the first U.S. health care system to do so. Gundersen started a program called Envision in 2008 that provided a broad strategy to offset its energy consumption through conservation and renewable energy projects, most involving local businesses.

Last month, Kaiser Permanente, headquartered just across the bay in Oakland, California, announced bold 2025 environmental goals that raise the bar for all of us. Kaiser’s goals include:

  • Becoming, “carbon net positive”
  • Buying only sustainably raised food
  • Sending zero waste to landfill
  • Reducing water use by 25 percent per square foot of buildings.

And my own organization, Dignity Health, is one of the nation’s largest health systems with a footprint in 22 states. We provide care, advocate for the underserved and partner with others in the community to address broader health needs. We understand the vital link between the health of the person and the health of the planet. The very foundations on which health is built are the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the very Earth that supports all being.

We have assessed our own carbon footprint and set goals to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 40%; decrease our energy intensity by 20%; and increase renewable energy sources to 35% of total annual energy consumption – all by 2020 and from a 2010 baseline. I’m happy to report that we are well on the way to achieving our goals.

For more than a decade, Dignity Health has used investments to address climate issues with portfolio companies. Last fall we revised our investment policy to

  • Explicitly include promoting environmental sustainability as a goal of our investment program
  • Press investment managers and advisors to include assessment of carbon risk in the analysis of potential investments
  • Seek additional investments in climate solutions
  • Screen from our portfolio companies that extract and/or burn thermal coal. We consider thermal coal, like tobacco and weapons to be a product whose impact on the health of persons, communities and Earth makes it contrary to our healing mission.

We have raised our voice in the halls of congress and the state capitol to advance legislation that has positioned California as a leader in addressing climate change and transitioning to a low carbon economy. We have helped form a Health Care Climate Council that brings leaders in the sector together to build collective momentum. We are on record supporting President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

In addition, we are part of Health Care Without Harm’s 2020 Health Care Climate Challenge— a global collaboration by hospitals and health systems on every continent to reduce their carbon footprint, become more climate resilient, and take leadership action to foster a global transition to clean renewable energy.

To date more than 90 institutions from 22 countries, representing 9,000 hospitals and health centers have joined the 2020 Challenge.   Together we have already reported a collective reduction of nearly 3 million metric tons of CO2 and our ambition is to exponentially increase this amount. 

Indeed, hospitals and health systems from most every Clean Energy Ministerial country are participating in this challenge, demonstrating innovative ways to create low carbon health care that can be scaled across national systems. 

Low carbon health care has a triple bottom line: supporting better health outcomes, saving health systems money and protecting planetary health.

We urge you to invite your health care systems and providers to take leadership in supporting, adopting and implementing innovative climate change measures.

Look to the health care sector in your countries as allies in your determination to address climate change.

Make health systems your partners in taking proactive steps to curb greenhouse emissions.

Let’s bring the full weight of the health care sector to bear on the greatest health challenge of our time.