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Cleveland health powerhouses move to address climate change

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/20/17 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in Climate

Last Friday, sustainability professionals in the health care industry and with Resilience Cleveland took on ‘Health Care’s Role in Anchoring Climate Resilience.”

“Our goal is to have a stable platform in rough seas,” said John Utech, Senior Director, Office for a Healthy Environment at Cleveland Clinic which has operations in Cleveland and Florida.

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The Cleveland Clinic has identified four areas where it expects climate change will require a response.

  • Extreme heat
  • Algal blooms/water supply
  • Extreme wind, and
  • Extreme rain events

As front line responders to devastation from natural disasters, such as heat waves and hurricanes, hospitals are taking climate change as a serious threat.

The Clinic has set goals, including making its operation carbon neutral by 2027, Utech said. Reaching carbon neutrality typically involves a range of actions, from producing one’s own renewable energy to purchasing renewable energy credits on the open market.

“We can reduce operating costs and put it toward patient care,” said Utech of the Clinic’s goal to reduce its carbon emissions by 13 percent and its energy intensity by 14 percent.

Part of the Clinic’s carbon reductions is to build to LEED Gold, the green building standard from the U.S. Green Building Council, in all of its construction. LEED assures that buildings meet carbon reduction goals and other environmental protections like clean water. In addition to LEED, the Clinic has piloted the WELL rating system, which focuses on occupant health and wellbeing, at its 17,000 square foot Q Building on its main campus.

“We’re building for extremes,” he said.

Green infrastructure can reduce toxic storm water run off that contributes to algal blooms in Lake Erie. The Clinic has installed a green roof on its Thompson Building, and will plant 1,000 trees in the Fairfax neighborhood adjacent to its main campus in Cleveland, Utech said.

The Clinic will also continue to advocate for important environmental protections, like the federal Clean Power Plan, with lawmakers in Washington through its affiliation with Health Care Without Harm, Utech said.

For its part, University Hospitals has plans to address climate resilience, said Dr. Aparna Bole, a physician and sole remaining staff affiliated with the sustainability department at the hospital which eliminated its three, full-time sustainability positions last month. Bole participates with Clinicians for Climate Action, an initiative of the Ohio Environmental Council which advocates for environmental health risk reductions.

“Lead poisoning in Cleveland, which (in certain instances) is ten times higher than Flint, Michigan, and air pollution are contributors to low birth weight and other health issues,” Bole said.

Doctors writing prescriptions for Vitamin N(ature), while interesting, is insufficient if a Cleveland resident cannot safely walk or bike to a park, Bole added.

Communities of color have been disproportionately affected by climate change, said Bianca Butts, Manager of Climate Resiliency & Sustainability at Cleveland Neighborhood Progress who is leading the Resilience Cleveland initiative.

“The extreme weather events affect not just health care, but the health of people and neighborhoods,” she said.

CNP and the Cleveland Office of Sustainability, with the help of Dr. Nick Rajkovich, have mapped where are the most vulnerable populations in Cleveland.

“Greater swings in temperatures has an impact on people,” confirmed Rajkovich, whose research on urban heat island impacts in Northeast Ohio has led to greater understanding of how much harm heat waves will cause.

CNP is meeting with residents in town halls starting December 2 to gather ideas on climate resilience.

“We want to infuse the city’s Climate Action Plan with equity,” Butts said.

To lead the effort, CNP hired climate ambassadors to connect with residents in the Cleveland neighborhoods of Glenville, Slavic Village, Central-Kinsman and Detroit-Shoreway.

“We need to ask people about the challenges they’re facing, and how they will be affected by climate change,” Butts said.

Cleveland’s lack of tree canopy (19% land cover compared to Pittsburgh’s 40%), for example, is one cause for concern (and opportunity). To buffer against the extremes, the city announced it will plant 50,000 trees by 2020 at its annual Sustainability Summit.

In addition to reducing the health risks associated with extreme weather, trees have been shown to reduce violent crime, said Sandra Albrow, Research Associate at the Cleveland Botanical Garden and Chair of the Cleveland Tree Plan Implementation Committee.

“Where there are more trees, there is (a correlation) to less crime,” Albrow says, referring to a study looking at urban trees in Pittsburgh.

Some city climate resilience priorities could be the conversion of vacant lots to stormwater retention gardens, and more weatherized homes, Butts concluded.

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Fred Litt
9 months ago

I'd like to see Cleveland train some unemployed people to do home energy audits and subsequent minor installations. (Caulking, some insulation, etc) The audits should be centered on residences that receive aid for their utility bills, and the cost borne by the city. The savings in the city's contribution to the energy bills should quickly pay for the cost of the program.

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