Changemakers for the future

Josh Karliner, Health Care Without Harm

The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combating climate change. Facts and figures speak for themselves, but who exactly are the people behind this extraordinary work? In this storytelling series, we spotlight brave individuals who move mountains in their climate action strategies and solutions. Today: Josh Karliner, International Director for Program and Strategy of Health Care Without Harm.

“Healthcare professionals as a leading voice for climate action”

I grew up in southern California, in San Diego, and I was about 14 years old when I started surfing. That year there was a huge rainfall in the winter. The sewage system overflowed and flooded into the ocean. It was a big disaster and I couldn’t go surfing. That triggered for me a greater environmental consciousness and a lot of things unfolded from there.

Surfing has been my anchor through my whole career. It helps me balance my work and my life, but it’s also led me to different places and exposed me to different cultures. In so many ways, this laid the groundwork for the work I do with different people, cultures and communities around the world.

Healthy mission
Healthcare systems contribute to almost 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. We work with health professionals so, in some ways, our job is easy because it’s a sector dedicated to preventing harm and to healing. When people with health training start realising the impact their own actions and systems have on planetary health, they’re predisposed to do something about it.

Once a doctor or a nurse really understands that they can do something, and that there’s a responsibility for the sector they work in to take action, it’s a pretty easy job to convince them.

Health professionals are the most trusted spokespeople in the world. What’s important is to provide the education, tools and resources for health professionals themselves to become a leading voice for climate action, and for that transition away from fossil fuels that we so desperately need.

We know the change that needs to happen
This year, at COP26, 52 governments committed to healthcare decarbonisation and resilience. This was the result of more than a quarter-century of work, of which Health Care Without Harm has spent more than 10 years mobilising the health sector on climate change. COP26 was a profound moment. The entire organisation’s trajectory started to come to fruition after all this effort from a talented and super committed team of people from all around the world.  

At the same time, although we’re seeing tremendous success in what we’re achieving, with transformational systems change, it’s still not enough. The climate crisis is accelerating in a non-linear way. And even though some of the change we’re starting to see in the health sector is non-linear, the growth of the crisis is exponentially greater than anything that any of our movements have been able to achieve to try to stop it.

I think that’s the real difficulty of living in this moment. We know the change that needs to happen. We’re all working really, really hard and pursuing innovative and exciting strategies and programmes across many sectors. But the crisis is more profound than the change we’ve been able to achieve so far. So that’s hard. I think it stresses our kids, too. The youth today are so distraught by the state of the world we’re leaving them.

Zero-emissions sector
For Health Care Without Harm, success looks like a total transformation of how healthcare is conceptualised and delivered in the 21st century. If we continue along the path we’re building, we’ll see a healthcare sector that’s well on its way to becoming a zero-emissions sector. It will also be more resilient in its infrastructure and systems, and more able to provide an anchor to enable communities to withstand the impacts of climate change.

Together with that, we’ll see that global health goals – such as universal access to healthcare – are being met. And we’re super excited to see growing leadership from doctors, nurses and health professionals to take on the climate crisis. This leadership is evident at many different levels. It’s manifesting in small ways, in how healthcare providers interact with their patients, for instance prescribing a healthy, less carbon-intensive diet or powder-based inhalers for asthma instead of the ones that emit super-potent greenhouse gases. At another level, hospitals, health clinics and health systems all around the world are changing their energy use, transportation and purchasing patterns to begin to align with the zero-emissions call. We’re also seeing changes in government commitments at the subnational and national level in lower-income and wealthier countries alike.

Ten years ago just a few people and organisations were speaking up, like voices in the wilderness. Now there’s a growing global movement for healthcare climate action. []

Hopes for  the future
If I had 10 minutes to speak at the 27th UN Climate Change Conference, I would say we need to have healthy people and a healthy planet. To get there, we must take care of some serious health problems. And the biggest one is our civilisation’s addiction to fossil fuels. We need to kick that habit and build healthier societies based on renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and greater social justice and equity. To achieve this, we need to take on our addiction – but we can’t just go cold turkey. We need a just transition that supports people’s livelihoods, creates a new economy and takes us to a better place.

There’s so much good in the world and humanity is so beautiful. Our history is full of struggles for justice and we’ve seen so many positive changes in society over the centuries. My hope is that goodness can triumph. And I hope we can do it in time, not only to save ourselves from what could be a miserable future of climate crisis but also to save the beauty in the world, its amazing biodiversity and incredible places.

I want my kids and my grandkids to be able to see the beauty I’ve lived in during my life. I hope it’s still there for them.

Josh Karliner is the International Director for Program and Strategy for Health Care Without Harm, an international NGO that works around the world with the healthcare sector to enable it to reduce its environmental footprint, become more sustainable and advocate for environmental health and justice.

The IKEA Foundation is partnering with Health Care Without Harm because we believe reducing emissions from healthcare offers a much-needed sign of hope and innovation to the many people who rely on the health sector, particularly in communities that are vulnerable to climate change.