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Why Healthcare Leaders Need to Lead on the Transition to Clean Energy

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When you already have something important, you won’t make any sacrifices to get it.  But when you need it – you ache to make those sacrifices.  Leaders in healthcare have to make the case that we need clean energy to create a healthier world for folks in our communities. 

When you already have clean drinking water, that comes in at a good pressure to your house, you are unlikely to support higher taxes to get clean drinking water, or further regulations to ensure clean drinking water.  But when you do not have clean drinking water at a good pressure, then you are enthusiastic about taxes, regulations, and even putting that water treatment plant just down the road from your house. 

When during the 1980s cell service was first established in the US, you did not encounter nimbyism around the placement of cell towers.  For example, in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where recently residents have rejected wind turbines because the mountains need to remain pristine, you find cell phone towers shooting up from mountain after mountain. There was no complaining because people did not have mobile phones – they wanted them.  To have this new important thing required cell towers.  And now, those cell phone towers are just part of the scenery. 

How did all those railroad tracks get run through towns and cities? How did all those transmission towers and electric wires get strung? How did all those telephone poles and wires spring up right next to every road?  People did not have access to transportation, to electricity, or to phone service.  They needed those things and so made the change. 

The challenge gets even steeper when you have clean drinking water, but the folks in the next town do not.  “Why should we have more have more regulations and taxes just to help them?” Now when the phone company wants to add some new cell towers many respond, “But my phone already gets good reception.” 

This is a major challenge for making the transition to clean energy.  When a community needs electricity it is enthusiastic about wind mills, solar, and nuclear.  Look what is happening now in Germany.  A few years ago the country decided to shutter all of its nuclear power plants.  That was not a problem because they were getting plenty of natural gas from Germany to fire electric plants. When Vladimir Putin shut off the gas spigot, suddenly citizens demand that those nuclear plants be kept open, and to consider building more. 

In the US, electricity, gasoline, and natural gas are plentiful, and the infrastructure is in place. No need to ask if you want that gas station in your neighborhood; it is already there. No need to ask if you mind those giant oil tanker trucks rolling down your roads, they are already rolling. No need to ask about the smoke from the natural gas electric plant; it is already smoking. No need to ask, “Would you like us to install a gas stove in your kitchen, and an oil furnace in your basement which will produce toxic fumes in your homes interior?” We have all been living with it for a long time, and don’t realize how bad it is.

We must build an entirely new infrastructure, and that will require all new sources of electricity, and those sources either take up room (wind, solar) or make people squeamish (nuclear).  In my own community there is pushback on the idea of farmers putting solar across their fields because it will “change the character of the community.”  Note: this solar makes no noise, creates no pollution, and is seen by no neighbor.  People will see it when they are driving down the road to their own home, and that bothers them. 

Health systems need to lead on this issue because they know making the energy transition to clean, renewable power will save hundreds of thousands of lives in the US, and millions of lives in globally.  It will radically reduce morbidity. Particulate matter from fossil fuels contributes to the deaths of more people every day (from pulmonary, cardiac, and neurological illnesses) then nuclear has done in its entire history.  Deaths from exceeding an increase in global temperature of more than 2 degrees will make that number seem small. To my knowledge producing energy wind and solar has never contributed to anyone’s death.  

We also need to care about the people in the next town over. Where I live, in the country in New Hampshire, I doubt that there is much death from the particulates created from burning fossil fuels. So I need to care about the people in Manchester New Hampshire, and even about the people in Boston.  Or in Mumbai. 

In healthcare we are all on a mission to improve people’s health and improve people’s lives. So everyone who works in healthcare – the medical and nursing professions, ancillary staff, executives and engineers, and health system board members like me – all need to be out making the case that we need to shift to renewables. Yes, that will mean that we need to put some windmills on the hills, and solar on the fields, but it also means that we don’t inhale the diesel exhaust of that truck passing by, and our kids don’t suffer as much from their asthma, and our parents don’t die from inhaling something almost as bad as second hand smoke. 


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