Even if global consumption of fossil fuels were to end today, heat-trapping gases present in the atmosphere would continue to warm the planet, propagating a cascade of environmental hazards, biodiversity loss, and threats to human health. While everyone suffers from environmental degradation, health-related impacts are multiplied among at-risk populations, thereby widening existing disparities of income, race, gender, and educational attainment. While this can easily lead some to despair, the #SGIM23 program committee has a sense of hope as we plan to meet the promise of tomorrow through planetary health at the annual meeting.
SGIM’s 2021 Position Statement related to the Health Effects of Climate Change1 has formed the basis of our meeting planning approach as it relates to planetary health. SGIM’s overarching stance is that we “should take an active role in educating patients, trainees, and the healthcare system about the health effects of climate change, and possible means to address underlying causes and attenuate expected effects.”1 The #SGIM23 meeting approach to planetary health supports the actions listed in the position statement, in particular those actions related to developing, disseminating, and evaluating educational material on the public health impacts of climate change. SGIM also supports efforts to “reduce the drivers of climate change, including Earth’s reliance on fossil fuels…”1 SGIM has demonstrated a commitment to environmental sustainability with the creation in 2022 of a new chair of sustainability on the SGIM program committee.
The opening plenary on Thursday, May 11, 2023, delivered by Howard Frumkin, DrPH, MPH, MD, will set the stage for further planetary health programming throughout the meeting. Dr. Frumkin is a fellow internist, an environmental and occupational medicine specialist, epidemiologist, Professor Emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington, and member of the Planetary Health Alliance Steering Committee. In his article “Hope, Health, and the Climate Crisis,” he lists multiple reasons to maintain active hope, noting that “greater hope predicts greater problem-solving ability and constructive, goal-seeking behavior” which ultimately benefits both patient care and care of the planet.2
Armed with hope, attendees will have opportunities to engage problem-solving skills at two workshops offered in partnership with SGIM’s Environment and Health Interest Group (EHIG): “Meeting Learners Where They Are: Action in Climate and Health Education” (2:20-3:20 May 11) and “Meeting the Promise of Tomorrow through Sustainability QI” (1:20-2:20 May 12). Other planetary health-related meeting content will be available through the meeting app.
In addition to a focus on meeting content, the program committee has carefully considered primary sources of general in-person meeting emissions, including venue-specific carbon and waste reduction, meeting consumables, meeting travel, and sustainable catering. Meeting planning is a long process, with venue selection occurring years in advance. Despite the protracted planning schedule, knowledge is an important first step, and there are still many ways to minimize our environmental impact at #SGIM23.
Gaylord Rockies, this year’s venue, happens to have made several commitments to environmental sustainability and social impact. Their goal is to implement innovative approaches to energy efficiency, water conservation, waste reduction, and air cleanliness. The resort also works to minimize waste by offering cardboard and plastic recycling, post-consumer recycled paper products, bulk purchasing, reduced packaging and manufacturer take-back initiatives, an ink cartridge and toner cartridge program, and on-site business center.
From a programmatic perspective, the digital app avoids the need for paper schedules, attendee contact lists, and surveys. Individual attendees can avoid waste at the meeting by bringing their own: lanyards, reusable water bottles, and warm beverage containers. Additionally, digital business cards save paper and can be created quickly online.
In-person attendees can elect to purchase carbon offsets for air travel, which by some estimates is responsible for ~90% of meeting emissions.3 Carbon offsets are best used temporarily by individuals, businesses, and organizations to address residual emissions until other environmentally sustainable solutions are available. Care must be taken to ensure the carbon offset project follows certain principles since some projects have been known to further damage ecologies or harm Indigenous populations. Practice Greenhealth offers guidance on how to choose carbon offset projects following principles from the World Resources Institute, and important considerations while offsetting health system emissions.4
Other individual steps toward carbon reduction include: using public transportation to and from the home airport, foregoing housekeeping services when able, turning off hotel water/lighting when not in use, and turning down hotel thermostat/AC when not in use. The Gaylord Rockies Resort has a number of energy efficiencies in place and encourages guests to turn down heating/cooling systems when leaving their rooms. Meeting attendees that hop on the train out of Denver International Airport can access the hotel’s complimentary shuttle 9.5 miles down the line. Further details for how to access the shuttle will be available on the meeting website and app.
Sustainable catering is another key opportunity to decrease the carbon footprint of events—it is best done through reduced food waste and prioritizing plant-based food options. With 25-30% of global food left unused, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change attributes 8-10% of global emissions to food waste.5 Furthermore, diets containing mostly plants are good for both human and planetary health since plant proteins produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions and require less land and water. The Gaylord Rockies has pledged to support local, organic, and sustainable farming and uses on-site pulping to reduce food waste from all restaurants and banquets. Individual attendees promote sustainable food practices while choosing plant-based meal options, choosing fruit or unpackaged meals over foods wrapped in plastic, and only taking food that will be consumed in order to avoid waste.
Reflecting on the range of environmentally sustainable meeting solutions, all #SGIM23 attendees should feel Proudtobe[S]GIM. Attending or not, each member is invited to confront climate change through supporting environmentally sustainable meeting planning, submitting more abstracts which address climate and health, supporting other opportunities at regional and national meetings to learn how to protect patients from the health impacts of climate change, and continuing to educate physician leaders whose careers will be defined by the consequences of climate change.