UCSF Sustainability Stories

Ana Toepel, Green Impact, January 2020

Green Champion Katherine Gundling: Advancing UCSF’s Work on Climate Health

Photographer: Marco Sanchez

Katherine Gundling, MD, Clinical Professor Emeritus, is making extensive efforts to foster Climate Health education and collaboration at UCSF, which earned her the 2019 UCSF Sustainability Award in the faculty category. Working with multiple members of the UCSF community, Dr. Gundling has been instrumental in the creation of a more cohesive Climate Health plan for the four graduate schools at UCSF. Through her work, she has engaged leaders from the Institute for Global Health to collaborate in educational program development and has created a database of faculty, staff, and students who are active or interested in Climate Health/Climate Change research, education, and advocacy.

Dr. Gundling has also done a great deal to integrate environmental sustainability into existing campus programs through her mentorship of the student group Human Health and Climate Change (HHCC). The many ways she has supported the group include helping to develop Climate Health forums on campus, assisting with the content and presenters for the Earth Health seminars, facilitating the creation of Climate Health projects for medical students, and securing funding for student advocacy work in Washington, DC. She also makes time to meet with HHCC students regularly to connect them with faculty, staff, other students, and experts that can help them meet their goals and to help them define their next steps.

Something that distinguishes Dr. Gundling’s contribution to sustainability at UCSF is her effort to amplify Climate Health collaboration among peers and build community partnerships. She has created several educational tools that encourage action and collaboration, including:
The Health and Climate Resource Guide (with the Governor’s office).
• A seminar entitled Cross-fertilization in Climate Health Communication for the UCSF Health Forum (with colleagues Sheri Weiser and Arianne Teherani).
• A database containing 400 vital Climate Health documents.
• Crafting a Career in Climate Health lecture for students and new faculty.

She has also forged partnerships between UCSF and the City of San Francisco, other health institutions, NGOs, and medical societies to carry out Climate Health activities and to further public education’s role in addressing the public health emergency of Climate Change.
Dr. Gundling shared some of her thoughts with us about the importance of Climate Health and Sustainability in her professional and personal experience.

What is the inspiration for your work in Sustainability and Climate Health?
Our changing climate is the public health elephant in the room for the 21st century, and we need to act now to protect and defend our patients’ health. As a citizen of the only planet available to us, I feel a deep responsibility to act because I can, and because those of us with means have a duty to support and uplift those without the ability to help themselves. Thankfully, solutions to global warming also present opportunities to address current and worsening health disparities, in addition to creating healthier communities for everyone.

Why do you think sustainability is important for health care and for UCSF?
Health care institutions such as UCSF are responsible for about 10% of the entire carbon footprint in the US, so it is imperative that medical centers work actively to reduce their carbon footprint. The Office of Sustainability is already a leader in demonstrating what can be done, and UCSF is working actively to disseminate this information and learn new methodology from others.

The second major opportunity is for UCSF to dedicate itself to training the Climate Medicine leaders of the future. As one of only several academic centers with the depth and breadth of faculty expertise required for such an endeavor, UCSF can build programs in climate-related health research, education, clinical care, and advocacy that have a true impact on human health and climate in years to come.

Which of your sustainability efforts at UCSF are you most excited about, and why?
1) Mentoring the Human Health and Climate Change student group is the most rewarding effort one could imagine. Students are engaged in projects across the health care spectrum; from conducting symposia to advocating Climate Health issues in congress and from developing a Planetary Health Justice Report Card to building a carbon offset program for faculty travel, students are working actively to define their own futures and to advocate strongly for the health of their patients.

2) There are many UCSF faculty members who are working actively on Climate Health related activities, but unfortunately there is no centralized mechanism for them to communicate, collaborate, and synergize efforts in the face of this terrible threat to human health. To overcome the silo effect and accelerate progress, I have created an extensive network of faculty, students, and staff. We recently held our first meeting to brainstorm opportunities for the future of Climate Health at UCSF, and we will build on these efforts in 2020. It is tremendously exciting to witness what happens when UCSF community members gather to share knowledge and design a new path forward.

How do you make sustainability a part of your personal life?
I do some little things and big things, but I drive myself (and family members) crazy by considering any single-use item I use as an item that I am buying and keeping. As the cabinets have filled up, it is easier to say, “I don’t need another straw (or cup, or food container, etc.),” and our purchases have definitely decreased. 

What actions related to sustainability and climate health would you encourage the UCSF community to take?
Everyone in the community is busy, and it can seem overwhelming to individuals to take on the challenge of global warming. Based upon research from scholars around the globe, the Drawdown Initiative ranks the 100 most substantive means of acting on global warming now. This list has something reachable for everyone, whether it relates to our own habits of living, the actions we take at work, or to targeting our annual donations. People might be surprised to see that Reducing Food Waste is #3, Plant-Rich Diet is #4, and Educating Girls is #6.

As far as UCSF’s leadership, I would encourage them to support the development of a dedicated Climate Medicine program in research, education, clinical care, and advocacy.