June 6, 2018

Combating climate change to foster total health

When Ramé Hemstreet was stationed in the nation of Palau as a young engineer in the Navy, he regularly explored the island paradise.

“Living there gave me an appreciation for the natural beauty and how delicate it can be,” he said. “In one way or another, I have been focused on the environment since then, and during my entire career.”

Hemstreet joined Kaiser Permanente almost seven years ago to become the organization’s first chief energy officer, and more recently, chief sustainable resources officer.

We recently spoke with him about Kaiser Permanente’s significant investment in renewable energy, ambitious goals to become carbon neutral, and plans to participate in the Global Climate Action Summit, set to take place in San Francisco, September 12 to 14.

Why should a health care organization work to combat climate change?

Climate change is already impacting human health, so as a health organization with a commitment to total health, we want to ensure we are doing no harm. It’s incumbent on all health-related organizations to eliminate contributions to climate change, both as a moral imperative and to be consistent with their missions.

For Kaiser Permanente, with our mission to improve the health of the communities we serve and given the fact that climate change is negatively impacting human health, we are committed to eliminating our carbon emissions. Our participation in the upcoming Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco reinforces our commitment to the goals set by the Paris Climate Accord, which if achieved will prevent the worst potential outcomes.

How is Kaiser Permanente doing on its goal of becoming carbon neutral?

We’re doing great. Our original goal was to reduce our greenhouse gas footprint by 30 percent. We established a baseline in 2008 against which to measure our progress. We have achieved that goal about three years early, despite growing membership by more than one-third during the same period.

The largest initiative was our offsite “power purchase agreement” for renewable energy — wind turbines in Northern California and solar power in Southern California. Those were the primary reasons for the 30 percent reduction, combined with the onsite solar we’ve installed over the past eight years. Now we’re working to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020.

How are we going to get there?

In three ways: Expanding our offsite renewable energy purchases to enable construction of additional wind and solar projects; purchasing renewable energy via green tariffs in our markets serviced by regulated utilities, largely outside of California; and finally, generating more renewable energy onsite when cost effective. Many public utilities offer 100 percent renewable energy to their customers under green tariff programs.

At our central utility plants where we generate heating and cooling, we burn natural gas, which releases greenhouse gas. Some ways to address this could be investing in carbon offset projects, such as planting trees or sponsoring agricultural practices that result in lower carbon emissions.

What are your hopes for the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco?

We’re excited to be a part of this event, which will bring climate leaders together from across the country and around the world. We will be able to learn from others, as well as share our plans to become carbon neutral.

Does the focus on the environment carry over into your personal life?

It’s the small things. I take public transportation to work practically every day. I enjoy biking. I also work with a small nonprofit called  The Unforgotten Fund in my spare time. It’s devoted to assisting families that survive off trash dumps in parts of the developing world, including Zambia and Sierra Leone. One of our projects is to provide high-efficiency cookstoves to those families. In countries where people cook over an open fire, they burn either wood or charcoal. If you supply those populations with more efficient cookstoves, indoor air quality improves reducing the risk of respiratory disease, families spend less on fuel, and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

What would you say to people who are pessimistic about the impact we can make toward turning climate change around?

The most important thing you can do is be a citizen and participate in making public policy, including at the local and state government levels. We faced a dire situation back in the 1980s with CFCs threatening the ozone layer. (CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons were harmful compounds used in aerosol sprays, refrigerants and some other products.) As a society, we addressed that problem and solved a potentially existential crisis. If that was possible, anything’s possible. We can turn this around and the collective power of health care can play a major role.