Planetary health is an area of study that considers both ecosystem health and human health in tandem, with the focus on how they’re mutually impacted by a changing climate. Here, environmental scientist Heidi Edmonds and Tammra Warby, an Australian medical doctor, share what they’ve learned from scholars and advocates of planetary health and the simple health and cost-saving solutions that start to restore it.
Photo credit: Stella and Lucinda Edmonds playing in Brisbane mudflats as the tide comes in. Heidi Edmonds
Ideas connecting climate change and human health have been around for many years, but it was a report presented by The Lancet Commission in 2015 that specifically introduced the concept of planetary health. One of the overarching principles presented in this report was that “human health depends on flourishing natural systems and the wise stewardship of those natural systems”. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is calling the effects of climate change on human health the “Greatest Health Threat of the 21st Century,” and is advocating urgently for the protection of planetary health. The basics of human survival include water, food and air, all of which are affected by ecosystem health and climate. As consumption grows, there will be an increasing burden placed on finite planetary resources such as freshwater and land, especially for the raising of livestock. Already only 0.3% of the world’s freshwater is available for human use and up to 70% of it goes towards use in agriculture. According to the CSIRO MegaTrends report, serious health impacts will be felt by the next generation in the form of water scarcity and reduced food security.
The impact of environmental pollution and global warming on human health is already evident. In the WHO report “Preventing Disease through Healthy Environments” it was shown that in 2012 approximately 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment. The Australian Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA) have spearheaded the development of A Framework for a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Wellbeing for Australia to increase disaster readiness, improve carbon emissions from the healthcare sector, raise awareness within the community and support health professionals in recognising, preparing for and responding to the health impacts of climate change.
To reduce the impacts on human health, we must keep warming of the global mean surface temperature to 2°C as the Paris Agreement calls for, or preferably the aspirational 1.5°C. It may not sound like much, but will make an exponential difference to our global climate system and thus to human health. The world has already warmed by around 1.1°C since the late 19th Century. Based on current emissions, we will reach 2°C of warming by 2036 if we continue with a business as usual approach.
At that level, global yields of crops and freshwater supplies will reduce and heat wave duration will increase, impacting the next generation. If we head towards 4°C, large parts of the world, especially the tropics, are likely to become unliveable for humans due to heat stress and other factors. Sea levels would rise by up to a metre by 2100, flooding many cities. Children born today who will be in their 80s in 2100, (when a 4°C rise is predicted for, if we don’t globally get our acts into gear), could see riots in the street over food and suffer the threat of extreme heat stress while witnessing growing inequality and social unrest. With such short time frames, you can see why leading climate voices are calling for major intervention over the next few years.
Fortunately, we can personally reduce our carbon footprint and improve our health at the same time. For example, riding a bike, increasing the plant-based portion of our diet and reducing meat intake (with 1 in 6 bowel cancers also caused by excessive red meat intake) does both. Besides these changes we should all conduct an energy audit of our home and buy carbon offset when flying. A recent project, “Drawdown” prioritises 100 of the best ways to reverse global warming with available technology. The top 10 (that also have potential to save us money) include reducing our food waste and utilising rooftop solar. If we all make small changes they will add up and increase the likelihood of rapidly reversing global warming for a sustainable and healthy climate for future generations.
Helping to raise awareness of the need to protect our planetary health is a powerful way to make a difference. Volunteering with Citizens’ Climate Lobby Australia is a great way to meet other people who care about a safe climate, and to help advocate and build political will for accelerating climate solutions. If you are passionate about protecting planetary health, you can also visit CAHA and lobby your local politician about adopting the proposed National Strategy. Another organisation raising awareness of the vital relationship between health and climate change, Doctors for the Environment Australia, were part of a recent national call for a high-level National Sustainability Commission, which you could also consider writing in support of. Climate change isn’t something far off that we can’t influence. It’s here, it’s urgent, and there is so much we can do to help care for our climate and ourselves.
About the authors:
Dr Tammra Warby is an Australian family doctor with a degree in Science, a PhD in Virology and a keen interest in the current and future health of people and the planet. She is on the FRACGP Future Leaders program, interested in educating the public about staying well as well as future doctors and family medicine trainees. You can follow/join the conversation on Twitter @DrTammraWarby.
Dr Heidi Edmonds is an ecologist / environmental engineer with a PhD in freshwater ecology who is currently looking after two young children. As a mother, she is especially interested in making climate science and climate solutions accessible, simple and easy to understand for more people. You can read more of her writing on her blog (www.climatekiss.com). Heidi is also a volunteer with CCL Australia, based in Brisbane. You can connect with her and other Australian CCL volunteers on CCL Australia’s Facebook page.