Climate change has become a health issue

A windswept and flooded street with downed trees.

From more cases of heat-related illnesses to increases in tick-borne diseases, family physician Paul Friedrichs has seen the impacts of climate change on the health of his patients. He understands all too well that climate change is a health issue.

“Environment is so critical to our health,” he says. “Our environment determines a majority of our health conditions: Infectious diseases, toxins, radiation in the environment, the food we have access to, allergens — just so much of human health is related to where we try to live.”

Consider this summer’s record-breaking temperatures (with July 2022 registering the third-hottest July on record), which increased the risk of heat-related illness for millions of Americans — and even death. Amid growing wildfires, a Harris Poll commissioned by CVS Health® reports that the U.S. is also expected to spend $176 billion in 2060 on respiratory and cardiovascular diseases attributable to air pollution — an eight-fold increase from 2015.

And in September, warmer air helped Hurricane Ian produce historic 1-in-1,000-year rainfall as it hit the Gulf Coast of Florida, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Studies show that hurricanes have many health impacts beyond injury and loss of life, including a rise in infectious diseases and mental health effects. 

Experts say worsening climate change can pose even greater health threats to people of color, low-income people and other marginalized groups who have the least resources to prepare for and recover from these disasters.

“The impact the environment has on human health, from heat-related illnesses to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, is irrefutable,” says Sheryl Burke, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility and chief sustainability officer. “If we can all work together to improve the health of the planet, we can also improve the health of all the people who live on it." 

Sheryl Burke, CVS Health senior vice president of corporate social responsibility and chief sustainability officer
Sheryl Burke, CVS Health senior vice president of corporate social responsibility and chief sustainability officer

Investing in change

With the World Health Organization (WHO) designating climate change as the single biggest health threat facing humanity, health organizations and companies are responding.

According to WHO, the long-term health impacts of climate change will depend on taking immediate action to reduce emissions to avoid crossing dangerous temperature thresholds. One way to do this is increasing the use of renewable energy.

Friedrichs is board chair for New Hampshire Healthcare Workers for Climate Action, which is working toward that goal. The volunteer organization of health care workers educates people on why climate change is a health issue and advocates for climate solutions.

Climate change has also long been an area of concern for CVS Health, and we have been reporting sustainability data for more than 15 years. As highlighted in our latest Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) report, we’re investing in renewable energy to offset our direct emissions and reduce our environmental impact.

“Climate-related events pose substantive business risks, and auditing these risks the way we would audit other financial risks is necessary,” Sheryl says. “Mitigating climate-related events that impact our business means doing our part to create a healthier planet over the long term.”

Climate Change causes shifting rainfall, warming temperatures and wildfires which lead to hazards like flood and droughts, violent storms, extreme heat and fire and smoke. In humans, this equates to injury, mental illness, heat stress, insect-borne diseases, lung disease and allergies. Source: Climate Central

A comprehensive commitment

We recently announced a 15-year initiative to purchase solar energy that is equivalent to the power use of 309 CVS Pharmacy® locations by the end of 2024. It's part of a bigger company-wide goal to source 50% renewable energy by 2040 and reduce our environmental impact by 50% by 2030.

For this 15-year initiative, we will purchase renewable energy from Constellation Offsite Renewables, the largest producer of carbon-free energy in the U.S., to facilitate our renewable energy transaction. “These long-term sustainability commitments are essential to increasing the amount of clean energy on the grid and helping solve the climate crisis,” said Constellation Chief Commercial Officer Jim McHugh.

By purchasing this renewable energy, CVS Health will reduce its carbon footprint by more than 38,000 metric tons each year. According to the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalency Calculator, this is the emissions equivalent of nearly 7,400 homes in a single year.

It’s just one of many steps we’re taking to protect the environment. CVS Health also continues to reduce resource consumption across our operations through lighting and transportation upgrades, optimizing digital solutions to reduce paper and offering alternatives to single-use bags. We also have water reduction goals, climate policies and approaches to waste management.

To address widening health inequities, we’ve also established meaningful goals to expand access to affordable care and address racial disparities, according to the ESG report.

We’re proud to say that we were among the first companies in the world to have our net-zero targets validated by the Science-Based Target Initiative, which provides us with a clear plan to balance greenhouse gas emissions.

“Investments in renewable energy enable us to help create a more sustainable world for all of us today and for generations to come,” Sheryl adds. 

Friedrichs also takes a long view of his work. “Change is slow, and we're not going to meet our necessary goals in my lifetime, but if we don't work on it hard and work on it starting now, we're not going to get there,” he says. “Hopefully my children and grandchildren will see the changes, live more comfortably — and be healthier.”