Health systems commit to sustainability efforts for the long term

November 1, 2021


Representatives of two of the country's largest Catholic health systems that have pledged to reduce their environmental impacts say tying the efforts to their systems' mission, making a long-term commitment, having the support of leadership and collecting data to verify that the efforts are on track are key aspects of the work.


"We know that this work is not instant work," said Elizabeth Schenk, executive director of environmental stewardship for Providence St. Joseph Health. "It takes time. It takes persistence. It takes not being intimidated by not finding easy answers because we're trying to solve a very complex world problem."

Schenk was one of three speakers who discussed how health care systems can take action to address climate change and environmental degradation during a CHA webinar Sept. 23. The online event marked the Feast of St. Francis, who is revered in part for his devotion to all creatures and called the patron saint of ecologists.

Julie Trocchio_150

The event's title was "Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor: Reducing Our Carbon Footprint." Moderator Julie Trocchio, CHA's senior director of community benefit and continuing care, said: "Over the years our concern about climate change has turned to worry, and now it is very serious alarm."

Trocchio pointed to the grim findings about global warming and its effects that were in recent reports from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and UNICEF. The UNICEF report, for example, noted that environmental change is putting 1 billion children across the globe at risk of climate-related disasters.

The webinar's goal was to showcase concrete actions that health care organizations can take and are taking in response to the crisis, Trocchio said.


Pledging to lead
Nick Ragone, executive vice president/chief marketing and communications officer for Ascension, announced his system's pledge to achieve net zero carbon emissions and waste by 2040.

He said Ascension hopes to set an example for other health care systems and for society. "It's not just making ourselves sustainable, which we will do, but advocating that writ large in our communities and beyond," Ragone said.


The third speaker was Gary Cohen, president and founder of the nonprofit Health Care Without Harm, which works to transform the health care sector to be environmentally sustainable.

Cohen said the key to addressing climate change is to end the world's reliance on carbon-emitting fossil fuels for energy, transportation, chemical manufacturing and other uses. He said analyses have shown that in the United States health care is responsible for as much as 10% of all carbon emissions.

A firefighter sprays water on a smoldering giant redwood in the Sequoia National Forest in California in mid-October. Scientists say climate change will lead to more wildfires like those that have ravaged the northwest this summer and fall and destroyed or damaged dozens of the iconic conifers, some of which are hundreds of years old.
National Interagency Fire Center

"So, the U.S. health care sector has enormous responsibility and opportunity to address its climate footprint and to exercise leadership in our broader societal transformation," Cohen said.

Global crisis becomes personal
He pointed out that not so long ago climate issues were seen by most Americans as something that the world wouldn't need to address for years. That has changed in recent years as hurricanes, flooding, wildfires and other extreme weather events tied to global warming have grown more common and devastating, he said.

"It's become a much more personally felt experience for people on the planet and that creates both a lot of fear and concern but also an enormous amount of opportunity," Cohen said.

Schenk noted that most of Providence St. Joseph Health's ministries are in the western U.S., where wildfires and drought have become persistent threats. She said the system created a position of chief sustainability officer several years ago to focus on climate-related issues.

That position has morphed into hers. She works across the system to engage its caregivers (the system's term for all staff members) in reducing utility costs, energy use, and waste production and to build resilience in the communities served by Providence St. Joseph Health.

In 2020, Providence announced a pledge to become carbon negative by 2030. "This is an enormous goal," Schenk said. "We know that because we're moving ahead of, say, the government and other organizations that we would like to see move faster."

Systemwide support
Schenk said Providence's pledge has the full support of Dr. Rod Hochman, the system's president and chief executive. A leadership team called the transformation circle is charged with achieving the pledge's goals. The team includes leaders from real estate, population health, supply chain and most other divisions of the system and liaisons from each of its seven regions.

In addition, all of the system's employees are invited to participate in various groups and events related to promoting sustainability. One group, the Action Collaborative for Environmental Stewardship, comes up with ways to celebrate successes and tackle challenges.

Providence has created a framework for its environmental work called WEACT, which is shorthand for focusing on waste, energy/water, agriculture/food, chemicals and transportation. The framework is used to organize data and projects and for discussion.

In addition, Schenk said Providence is developing a collection of environmental-related data that tracks its efforts and can be displayed on a dashboard. The dashboard will offer individual data about the system's hospitals and facilities and be accessible to each of them.

Setting measurable goals
Ragone said Ascension plans similar tracking using data and analytics of its progress toward its goals. "These have to be measurable goals, they can't just be some feel-good platitudes that we put out in October of 2021 and then we forget about," he said.

The Ascension effort has the full backing of Joseph Impicciche, president and chief executive, and is being led by Craig Cordola, executive vice president and chief operating officer, Ragone said.

It is based on three pillars — making use of energy efficiency and renewable energy in workplaces, creating an environmentally responsible supply chain and fostering healthy communities. A new environmental impact office will facilitate the work and oversee communications, data management, change management and governance.

Ragone said addressing climate issues aligns with Ascension's Catholic mission to be a good environmental steward and to serve the poor and vulnerable.

He noted that the harsher toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on those who are poor and on people of color underscores that certain populations are at a disadvantage in crises. "It's sort of further illuminated that schism with health inequity in our society," Ragone said.

Each of the speakers discussed how the pandemic spotlighted health inequities that are also apparent in the disproportionate effects of global warming on the most vulnerable. Cohen noted that environmental activists and health equity champions who once worked separately on their issues are uniting around the health impacts of climate change.

"There's this integrated vision coming forward now where people understand that COVID was a force multiplier for all those racial, economic and health inequities," he said. "Climate is that as well — on steroids."

Other initiatives
Like Providence, Ragone said Ascension is counting on all of its associates to contribute to its environmental efforts and on seeing those efforts cascade and spur changes across the communities the system serves.

"We are so delighted to be able to help Catholic health care lead on this very important issue and I hope that leadership inspires the rest of health care to think about what their role is, what's their responsibility to create longer-term sustainability," Ragone said.

Trocchio noted that the majority of CHA's members have committed to the association's Confronting Racism by Achieving Health Equity initiative. She added that the fall issue of CHA's journal Health Progress is devoted to environmental issues and features articles on the work being done by several systems.

She invited CHA members to take part in the Climate Action Collaborative that the National Academy of Medicine launched Sept. 28 and to sign onto a Climate Action Letter that the Catholic Climate Covenant plans to send to the Biden Administration and Congress this fall urging action on climate change.

Copyright © 2021 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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