AHRQ Views: Blog posts from AHRQ leaders
Earth Day at AHRQ: Celebrating Hope Through Action
We celebrate Earth Day each year as a reminder that one planet is all we have. The international science community continues to paint a dire picture of Earth’s climate change trajectory, with greenhouse gas emissions and harms increasing each year. However, there is a kernel of hope embedded in the climate change problem itself: because modifiable human actions are the cause, human actions also hold the keys to the solution.
Even in the face of climate change’s threat to public health, it is our responsibility not to be paralyzed by fear. Instead, we must define goals, identify pathways forward, and empower individual and collective agency.
The Biden-Harris Administration has set clear goals for the country—to cut emissions in half in the next 8 years, then move quickly to net zero after that. The Federal government is moving even faster through an ambitious Federal Sustainability Plan.
In alignment with those goals, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) has built climate action into its overall Strategic Plan and developed an evolving HHS-wide Climate Action Plan (PDF, 1 MB) to identify departmental-specific actions to help drive overall change.
Traditionally, AHRQ has not focused on climate change or environmental justice. But climate change has proven to have significant and increasing impacts on both human health and the healthcare system’s capacity to provide care. With these realities in mind, the Agency is actively seeking ways to integrate climate thinking into our work and help build resilience to climate threats, reduce the healthcare industry's contribution to climate change while increasing sustainability, and address environmental justice issues.
AHRQ received tremendous feedback to October’s Request for Information on how we should incorporate climate change into our work. We received hundreds of pages of comments and suggestions from more than 50 organizations and individuals, representing large healthcare systems, solo practitioners, environmental advocacy groups, medical device manufacturers, legal scholars, and many others. Most supported AHRQ’s efforts to help tackle climate change. Some cautioned against diluting AHRQ’s core mission of healthcare improvement. We believe that addressing climate change issues is not in conflict with AHRQ’s mission, but rather a necessity if we are to remain faithful to that mission.
By drawing on AHRQ’s strengths in health systems research, practice improvement, and data & analytics, we believe that AHRQ can play an essential role in the response to climate change. The Administration’s call to action, along with feedback to our Request for Information, have already resulted in important steps forward:
Increased Knowledge & Capacity: As an organization that values learning, AHRQ recently hosted climate change thought leaders as part of the Agency’s Director’s Speaker Series. Jodi Sherman from Yale’s Center on Climate Change & Health; Renee Salas from Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment; and Arsenio Mataka from HHS’ Office of Climate Change & Health Equity introduced AHRQ staff to key climate change issues and solutions. AHRQ also launched a cross-agency climate change workgroup to help guide the Agency’s activities.
Health Systems Research, Data, & Analytics: We are beginning to explore how AHRQ’s premier healthcare data resources can increase understanding of climate changes’ impacts on human health and healthcare delivery. A new brief (PDF, 1.2 MB) from AHRQ’s Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, for example, provided first-time insights into geographical variations of heat-related illnesses that result in emergency department visits and in-patient stays. The analysis may inform prevention strategies, such as heat alert protocols, changes to built environments, and public education programs. Additional analytic projects are already underway.
Partnerships: Just about everyone who responded to our Request for Information agreed that climate change cannot be solved by AHRQ, the U.S. government, or the private sector alone. We must work in concert, collaborating with partners within and across traditional boundaries. AHRQ is working closely with agencies across HHS and the Federal government through the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. AHRQ has also joined the National Academy of Medicine’s (NAM) Climate Collaborative, which brings private industry, nonprofits, and government to the same table to set goals, metrics, and strategies to rapidly reduce healthcare’s carbon footprint.
Practice Change: This month, AHRQ kicked off a new initiative, aligned with the NAM Climate Collaborative, to produce a measurement framework and action guide to accelerate decarbonization in health systems. In close collaboration with experts in healthcare sustainability, clinical practice, and health system leadership, this initiative aims within the next 6 months to advance a prioritized set of healthcare sustainability measures and identify evidence-based, system-level interventions to reduce healthcare’s greenhouse gas emissions.
AHRQ’s work on climate change and environmental justice is just beginning, and we can’t do it alone. Please let us know your ideas for further AHRQ action at: firstname.lastname@example.org
David Meyers is deputy director of AHRQ. Brent Sandmeyer leads the Agency’s climate change working group.