Health Calls

Providence's Carbon-Negative Health Care Pledge

Episode Summary

Between hurricanes and heat waves, the effects of the climate crisis have never been more evident. How can health care systems make bold commitments that will make a difference in the fight against climate change?

Episode Notes

Between hurricanes and heat waves, the effects of the climate crisis have never been more evident. How can health care systems make bold commitments that will make a difference in the fight against climate change?

Ali Santore, Chief Advocacy and Social Responsibility Officer at Providence, and Beth Schenk, Chief Environmental Stewardship Officer at Providence, join Health Calls to discuss their system's pledge to be carbon-negative by 2030. They discuss the way the pledge has been integrated throughout leadership structures, the definition of "carbon negative" health care and how their climate impacts can be measured using data.

Episode Transcription

Brian Reardon (00:00):

Hi, Indu.

Indu Spugnardi (00:01):

Hello Brian.

Brian Reardon (00:02):

Happy Season of Creation!

Indu Spugnardi (00:04):

Oh, thank you. Brian. We're gearing up here at CHA. We've got lots of resources for our members for Season of Creation, and I'm glad that you're doing this podcast on a very important topic around carbon emissions.

Brian Reardon (00:17):

Yeah. We'll talk a little bit about what Season of Creation is, but I am really excited about this topic, indu, because we're going to be talking to a couple of colleagues from Providence about a really bold initiative that they're undertaking. So you ready to start? Let's do it.

Indu Spugnardi (00:30):


Brian Reardon (00:36):

This is Health Calls, the podcast of the Catholic Health Association of the United States. I'm your host, Brian Reardon. Joining me for this episode is Indu Spugnardi. She's director of advocacy and resource development with the Catholic Health Association. And then in a few minutes, we're going to be bringing in again, two colleagues from Providence, Ali Santore, she's Chief Advocacy and Social Responsibility Officer, again for Providence and her colleague Beth Schenk. She's Chief Environmental Stewardship Officer also for Providence. So we'll be talking to both of them again about carbon-negative health care. So tell us a little bit for our listeners who may not be familiar with the Season of Creation, what that's all about.

Indu Spugnardi (01:15):

Happy to, Brian. Season of Creation is an annual global movement where Christian communities pray and take action to care for God's Creation. It starts on September 1st, which is World Day of Prayer for the care of Creation. And it ends on October 4th, which is the Feasy Day of St. Francis of Assisi. And this year's theme, as you noted, is let justice and peace flow, and it's really an urgent call, Brian, to stop the war on Creation and to stand with the victims of environmental and climate injustice. In his prayer for this year's Season of Creation, Pope Francis is telling us that what is driving this war, and he doesn't mince words, he calls out consumerist greed fueled by selfish hearts, unrestrained burning of fossil fuels and predatory industry. He's also laid out three areas for action. One, he's calling on us to transform our hearts by understanding the integral connection between nature and human beings. Second, he's asking us to transform our lifestyles by adopting more sustainable practices. And third, he's asking us to transform our public policies by advocating the move from fossil fuels and to advocate for protections for those most vulnerable to ecological crisis. So it's a really good time to really center ourselves and think about how our actions are impacting or adding to the ecological crisis. CHA's website has a section dedicated to this with resources to help our members take action in these areas.

Brian Reardon (02:48):

And I was just going to chime in and say how more relevant than ever. I mean, it just seems like every year we see more and more natural catastrophes. It just has become more and more critical or urgent that we engage our members to really talk about and get serious about environmental sustainability. And I guess indu, what are you hearing from the membership? This is your area of focus or one of your areas of focus at CHA. Before I bring in our guests, can you just share a little bit about what is the sentiment among the CHA members related to really stepping up more aggressively, if you will, on our work in environmental sustainability?

Indu Spugnardi (03:27):

Brian, I think our members really understand that their environmental sustainability efforts are important and are a reflection of their mission As health care providers and as a ministry of the Catholic church, they understand that their communities cannot be healthy and thrive in an unhealthy environment, especially communities that have been historically marginalized and disenfranchised and that therefore suffered disproportionately in this ecological crisis. And I think the concern right now is that as health care organizations are dealing with unprecedented financial and workforce pressures, there might be a pulling back on these efforts. But there are advocates in our systems who are stepping up their efforts to educate leadership and colleagues about how environmental sustainability efforts can really help address those issues. Increasing energy efficiency and decreasing waste saves money. And more and more people, especially young people, Brian, want to work for an employer that is committed to environmental sustainability. So I think it's an important issue for our members, and they understand that they need to make a real commitment to it.

Brian Reardon (04:32):

Yeah, so critical. Well, let's bring in our guests. We really want to focus in on a specific pledge that Providence has made, and that's their carbon-negative health care pledge. So let's bring in Ali Santore again. She oversees advocacy and social responsibility at Providence. And Beth Schenk, she's their Chief Environmental Stewardship Officer. Hi Ali. Hi Beth. Thanks for joining us.

Ali Santore (04:52):

Hi, Brian. Thanks for having us.

Brian Reardon (04:55):

So either one of you just start off with, just give us an overview of the pledge, how did it come about? And we'll get into some of the details, but I'd like to hear kind of the backstory of how Providence decided to, I think it's the year 2030, correct. To go carbon-negative.

Ali Santore (05:12):

Absolutely. So Brian, this goal came about in 2020 in the middle of when all of our ministries were on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic because we realized that we could not ignore the role that health systems play in exacerbating climate change. So the US health care system is responsible for 8.5% of all greenhouse gases in the United States. So while our mission as a Catholic ministry calls us to heal our activities are operations are harming the environment and harming human health. So we realized that if we were really going to address our vision at Providence of Health for a better world and reduce health inequities, we ignore our own contributions to the climate crisis. We are looked at as a community anchor within the communities that we serve. And so we knew that we needed to step up and address our role to really be that healing ministry and community anchor. So we made the commitment to become carbon-negative by 2030, led by our CEO, Dr. Rod Hochman. And Beth has really been on the front lines of operationalizing that commitment across seven states and over a thousand different clinics and ministries. And so it's been quite the endeavor, but I think as Indu mentioned, a really engaging one for our caregivers and our workforce, which I'm sure we'll talk more about.

Beth Schenk (06:41):

Yeah. Thanks Ali. Yes, it really is an enormous project, but the climate crisis is an enormous crisis. Indu talked about that a little bit. So it's a really complex feedback loop that we're right in the middle of. So our carbon-negative goal is truly an aspirational goal. And this is because as Ali said, we couldn't ignore anymore our role or the importance of climate as a health driver, but also we can't do this in isolation. So we're really dependent on other members of the health care sector with whom we work closely with government agencies, with many partners, with changes in our economy with the decarbonization of our electricity grid and the move toward electric transportation. All of those things we are dependent on. And so we're pushing on all fronts as well as on the detailed work of decarbonizing our own operations. But another really important aspect of our initiative is work dealing with reckoning with the changes that are already here.


So that's in resiliency and adaptation. So we, along with many others in the country, signed the Health Department of Health and Human Services health care Climate Pledge. And one of our deliverables is a climate resiliency plan do this year. So we've been working a lot with different community-facing divisions in Providence plus community partners to understand how can we, as Ali said, an anchor in the communities we serve. How can we help nudge community services to keep in mind heat is lethal. We need to do what we can to prevent loss of life or harm from heat. Same with wildfire smoke, same with flooding. So it doesn't mean that we don't also address everything else that we address in Catholic health care, but this too needs to now be part of our lens. And then a third piece besides our mitigation work, our driving down of carbon and our resiliency work is what we're calling, we call it we Share. And that's our advocacy work that Ali leads our partnerships with many, many organizations that are really paying attention to this now. And also education that we try and offer and share because we've been asked to do that by our forebearers, the sisters who founded Providence and St. Joseph.

Brian Reardon (09:05):

Here's a real basic question, and that is, can you tell us, because we hear a lot about carbon neutral, you're pledging carbon-negative. So how does that work? Can you explain the difference between the two?

Beth Schenk (09:16):

Yes. And it must be said that these terms are fluid still. We had for the first time a rather formal definition of carbon neutral, and that was just in 2021. So that was after we set this goal. And that was by the Science-Based Targets initiative. So generally speaking, carbon neutral means that the amount of carbon that an organization, state family person is responsible for is essentially zeroed out. So that's first by reducing everything that can be done to reduce and then by either removing carbon or to some extent offsetting carbon. That's a complicated topic. It's a little bit controversial because it's a moving target, but that in the end, basically there would be no added emissions from this entity, family, community, or business. That's carbon neutral. carbon-negative is going a bit beyond that and taking responsibility for past emissions or trying to do more to help in the community by reducing more emissions that is less well-defined as a term. And we think of this again as an aspirational goal that translates really to us doing everything we can by 2030. And that's important too. And that's because that came from the scientists who said, as Ali said, we set this goal in 2020, so this decade, this decade of the twenties is really important for helping to turn the ship on our emissions. And so that's why we said we need to have an aggressive goal. It needs to be soon, and we need to do all that we can really on all fronts. I hope that helps.

Brian Reardon (11:00):

No, it really does. So now I want to get into the more practical aspects of how you're going to achieve a very ambitious goal. And I think this obviously has to start at the top of the organization and work its way down and work its way across, not only within Providence, but within the communities you serve. So can you tell me a little bit, or share with our listeners again, the leadership decision and maybe some of the opportunities and challenges you have in getting this ambitious pledge to actually be achieved?

Ali Santore (11:30):

Absolutely. So leadership needs to be engaged and set the tone at all levels of the organization for this work to be successful. And Brian, we say all the time that this work cannot be a side hustle. It needs to be integrated into the strategic and operational plans across our ministry. So it can't be a nice to have or something that's done on a parallel track. It needs to be absolutely integrated into those plans because as Indu said, this work saves money. It creates operational efficiencies, it improves our caregiver and workforce experience, it helps with worker retention, and it helps with our goals to create a more healthy community. So what we've done in order to really build that accountability across the organization is set up various governance structures and then various operational structures across the organization that bring in different teams. Because this work can feel daunting, it can feel too big.


The problem is a wicked problem that's almost impossible to solve. There's a narrative out there around that, but that's not true. Every team across Providence, every team across any Catholic ministry can have a really impactful difference by just tweaking their practices in some small ways and some large ways. So the way that we structured our leadership accountability is a couple different ways. So first, we made this a incentive, an incentive payment goal for our top leadership. So everyone in Providence, vice president and above is carrying our carbon-negative goal as part of their incentive compensation structure. So that's a real indication that we're serious about this work, that we value this work, that our mission comes front and center in terms of how we incentivize our leadership. And then we also set up, and Beth has done such a great job in setting up various structures across Providence to facilitate knowledge sharing, to facilitate dissemination of data, because data is a really key component of this work, knowing where we stand and what our progress is.


So we have an environmental stewardship transformation circle. We have a sustainable procurement committee committee, we have an environmental justice collaborative, and we also, so those are just some of the groups that we have. But I also, in my role as part of the executive team, give a monthly update on the progress of our work to become carbon-negative to our executive team. So every single executive leader is tracking where we are at in this goal and what their teams, region's, divisions, need to do to achieve this goal. We've also taken it one step further beyond our executive leadership and also engaged our community ministry boards. So I would say it's an all hands on deck effort. And we work really hard to embed environmental stewardship into everything that we do and every single decision that's made across Providence.

Brian Reardon (14:42):

So for those of us who've worked in health care or working in health care, we're used to the dashboards that look at clinical and safety outcomes, that look at finance, that look at workforce. Is there a dashboard that then is integrated on some of the things you just outlined as far as environmental goals?

Beth Schenk (14:59):

Yeah, this work is very data-driven because it's technical, it's measurable, and we are really interested in not only tracking the resource use, involved with all the elements of environmental steward and the cost, but also the carbon. And many sites aren't really thinking about carbon accounting yet, but it's an important piece to know how we're doing and where we're going. So we have had the wonderful advantage, I would say, of our partners, our Providence Global Center. It's a Providence division in Rabba India who helps build tech applications for health care. So they have over the last two and a half years helped us create what we're calling the WE Act scorecard. We act as our mnemonic that you may have heard about waste, energy, water, agriculture, food, chemicals, and transportation. So we have a scorecard that reflects all of the resources used with that for every hospital and now almost 500 of our clinics every month. So we know how much of a particular resource was used, what it cost, and what the carbon emissions are. Now, that's an enormous amount of data and it's hard to tell that story. So we've recently just this year developed what we're calling the WEACT profile, which gives a single score per hospital or clinic. And so that has been something that's really helped our leaders grasp this and also understand how they can make improvements. They call us and say, how can we get our score up?

Brian Reardon (16:28):

No, that's great. And just the way you described that makes perfect sense. And again, as you said, it's such a big ambitious goal, but to break it down into manageable pieces and look at those where you're having some success, where you still need work to do, I think is a really helpful overview. So let me bring it Indu now to reflect on this, and I want to bring it back to the Season of Creation and Lado Sea. Really the work here, indu is from an operational standpoint, from a community standpoint, very important. But it also again brings us back to who we are as part of the church.

Indu Spugnardi (17:06):

I couldn't agree more, Brian, and I think we heard from Ali and Beth that a lot of this work is really rooted foundationally in their commitment to Laudato Si, which is a lot of people call it the Pope's environmental encyclical, but it's bigger than the environment. It's about our connection, our understanding of our connection to the environment. And it's also about justice. It's about how this social and economic model that we have now really relies on exploitation of certain groups of people. And people who are impacted the most by climate change in the ecological crisis are usually people who contributed to the least and are also dealing with having the least. So I really appreciate Ali and Beth talking about the justice aspect of their work. You mentioned the health sector pledge. That might be a little daunting for folks to sign up for a pledge with the federal government. What are some other steps organizations can take to start to understand how to inventory their carbon emissions and really take some of the rigor that you've implemented at Providence in monitoring and tracking and reducing?

Beth Schenk (18:22):

Well, I can speak to the measurement a bit, but I do think an even earlier step is identifying that this is something important to pay attention to. They may not have to come out with a big pledge, but it's going to take some focus and some attention, particularly from leaders.

Ali Santore (18:39):

I think that one of the things that we have found to be successful is speaking the language of our leaders. So where obviously, as Indu said, this is foundational to who we are as a Catholic ministry. Our value of justice within Providence specifically calls out the need to care for the environment. So that's foundational to us. But then when we talk to operators, people that are faced with the day-to-day decisions to really make the case that this is not only a mission and moral imperative, this is a business imperative for the continued financial sustainability of our ministry into the future. So when we talk about the operational savings and efficiencies, the workforce retention that I mentioned before, if we can really meet people where they are, it helps to make this more relevant and front and center in terms of the decisions that they are making every day, because not all decisions are made through the same perspective across our ministry. So I think meeting people where they are and really understanding the specific positive impacts for any individual ministry line of business across the organization, that's been really important in empowering and mobilizing stakeholders across Providence.

Brian Reardon (20:02):

Well, kudos to Providence because this is really critical and I just am so happy to talk to you about this because I think what you're doing really is such a great example. As I mentioned earlier, we have other systems that are on this same journey. They may be at different places in that, and we have a lot of information on our website. I'm going to have give a shout out about our Season of Creation page, but we've covered this topic extensively in health progress in Catholic Health World. We're going to actually do a couple more podcasts this month during Season of Creation on the work of environmental sustainability. It is so critical to who we are as a healing ministry. And so again, I want to just commend both of you and all of your team members at Providence for really leaning in on this and providing some leadership. I think it's incredible. So thank you. So before we let them go, do you want to really quickly just give an overview of those listening where they can find a lot more information on this topic?

Indu Spugnardi (21:02):

Happy to Brian. If you go to the CHA website and you look under our focus areas, you'll see we have a focus area on the environment. We have a lot of resources there to help members understand what are the drivers behind environmental sustainability, like Ali said, policy business drivers, but also of course, the foundational driver, which is our commitment to care for Creation information about Lato Sea. And we do have a special section on Season of Creation where you can find the Pope's message resources from the Season of Creation organization and a lot of information about what our members are doing, including Providence and others that are doing great work in the environment. I think a lot of how this is going to move forward is for us to look to each other and support each other. So, so glad to have Beth and Ali here to share their story.

Brian Reardon (21:54):

Yeah, Ali Santore, she's Chief Advocacy and Social Responsibility Officer for Providence and Beth Schenk, Chief Environmental Stewardship Officer. Thanks to both of you for taking time out and really just sharing some amazing information and sharing the amazing work you're doing.


And for Indu Spugnardi, director of Advocacy and Resource Development for CHA. I'm Brian Reardon, your host of Health Calls, the podcast of the Catholic Health Association of the United States. You can listen to Health Calls on all of your favorite podcast streaming services. And I also want to mention Indu covered the Season of Creation Resources. We also have a webinar coming up on September 20th. It's on climate resiliency in health care. That'll be from 1-2:00 PM Eastern again on September 20th. You can find all the information and register for that webinar on our Thanks to Josh Matejka, our producer, and Brian Hartmann, our engineer at Clayton Studios for putting this episode together. As always, thanks for listening.