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Kaiser Permanente Links Climate Change to Health Care

Harvard Business Review

Kaiser Permanente (KP), one of the largest health care providers in America, has a clear mission: improve health. In a surprising and welcome twist, KP is publicly recognizing that climate change threatens that mission. This health care leader is showing how an authentic, mission-driven connection to global issues can drive change.

The topic of climate change has become so politicized, it's rare to hear company representatives and CEOs admit that they're taking a course of action specifically in response to a climate-related threat. But that's starting to change, even in sectors you might not think have a direct stake in climate change.

KP is not a minor player in a health care industry that accounts for 16% of U.S. GDP and 8% of greenhouse gas emissions. With $44 billion in revenues, KP runs hospitals, clinics and health plans, serving more than 9 million members in nine states (and Washington, DC). The "company" is technically a not-for-profit, but in my experience that matters little to medical device and pharma companies that experience KP as a very, very large customer with large demands.

The company has made increasing commitments to renewable energy as part of its aggressive greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals (30% by 2020). KP is buying both carbon offsets and significant onsite energy — 11 megawatts of solar and 4 megawatts of fuel cell generation, for example.

All of this is surprising since the health care sustainability agenda has mostly focused on supply chain issues, reducing exposure of patients and workers to toxic chemicals, green building, and general eco-efficiency. Why are they doing so much on renewable energy?

I spoke recently with Kathy Gerwig, KP's Environmental Stewardship Officer, to find out. I expected a more typical answer about achieving GHG reduction goals or doing the right thing. What I got instead was one of the most straightforward statements about the role of climate change in public health and in corporate strategy.

As Gerwig put it, "there's credible evidence of significant climate change that will impact our ability to provide quality health care."

She laid out four broad categories of the health effects:

Severe weather: Hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and heat waves all injure and kill people. Hospitals — and all businesses for that matter — need to prepare for these extremes.

Respiratory diseases: Air quality in general deeply affects health. This is, as Gerwig says, mainly about the short-term consequences of not dealing with burning fossil fuels and the changing climate.

Infectious diseases: As the planet warms, bugs like mosquitos can survive and thrive further north, spreading diseases to new areas. According to the UN, previously untouched areas like the southern U.S. and Mexico will face malaria, yellow fever, and dengue by 2050.

The "what we don't know" bucket: While the science is clear that climate change is a serious problem, we still don't know a lot about how it will play out (this is not the same as saying the science is so uncertain that we shouldn't do something). "What we know so far about the repercussions of climate change isn't good," Gerwig says, "such as water shortages and increased wars over resources, and all the health issues that go along with those."

We need all sectors to man the barricades and take positions. Setting a 30 percent absolute GHG reduction goal by 2020 is in line with what scientists tell us we need to do, and it's unusually aggressive. But integrating sustainability and climate change into the health care mission of the organization is the real story here, and its one that companies should emulate quickly.

Andrew Winston is the co-author of the best-seller Green to Gold and the author of Green Recovery. He advises some of the world’s biggest companies on environmental strategy.

Visit www.bloomberg.com/sustainability for the latest from Bloomberg News about energy, natural resources and global business.

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