While international leaders meet at the United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris to find binding ways to reduce the impact of climate change, leading U.S. health care systems also are attending to communicate the issue’s health impact.

Attending the conference are leaders from five members of the Health Care Climate Council, a network of 16 health systems across the United States that are committed to strengthening the sector’s own response to climate change as well as communicate its health impact.

The council was organized by Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), Reston, Va., which is hosting a series of events at COP21 that will serve to focus on climate change as a global health issue and one that the industry itself plans to address by reducing its own carbon footprint.   

Dignity Health, San Francisco; Kaiser Permanente, Oakland, Calif.; Gundersen Health System, La Crosse, Wis.; Partners HealthCare, Boston; and Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, are council members attending the conference. Leaders from health care systems from several other countries also are attending and expected to join the HCWH events.

"Paris provides a leadership moment for health care — an opportunity to take on perhaps the greatest threat to public health of our time,” says Josh Karliner, global projects director, Health Care Without Harm. "By transitioning to clean, renewable energy, health care can help the world kick its addiction to fossil fuels and issue a prescription for a healthy planet."

Karliner predicts that COP21 will serve as a springboard for greater participation in the 2020 Health Care Climate Challenge, which now includes more than 38 major health systems, representing more than 7,800 hospitals and health centers in 14 countries from every continent.

Led by HCWH, the health systems participating in the 2020 Challenge pledge to reduce their own carbon footprint, become climate resilient anchors in their communities, and pursue both political and economic solutions that will protect public health from climate change.

"After COP21, HCWH will scale up the 2020 Challenge to include thousands more health systems around the world," Karliner says. "Building on the examples and experiences shared this week in Paris, the 2020 Challenge will mobilize large groups of hospitals and health systems around the world to step up their efforts in combating climate change."

At a panel hosted by the University of Wisconsin Global Health Institute and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, Jeff Thompson, M.D., executive adviser and CEO emeritus at Gundersen, will participate in a panel discussion titled "Live from Paris: Connecting Wisconsin and the UN Climate Talks."

The panel will feature experts and innovators in environmental and sustainable change, most of whom are from the University of Wisconsin. Under Thompson’s leadership, Gundersen achieved net zero energy use in October 2014 through an array of energy conservation and renewable strategies.

"It is our mission to improve the health of the communities we serve, which includes taking action to improve and protect our environment, reduce our waste and lower our costs," Thompson says. "Not every health care organization makes this a priority, but we have shown it is possible to provide exceptional patient care and exceptional care for the environment."

A live webcast of the discussion will be held today at 10:30 a.m. CT. You can access a recording in the weeks following the conference.