What's Health Got To Do With It?
Thinking back to my childhood and what I learned early on about our environment, the first things that come to mind are pollution (acid rain, the ozone hole) and 'natural disasters'. I remember learning about the Greenhouse Effect and how the Earth is warming. I recall feeling worried about the animals and natural landscapes being affected by these processes. One thing I don't remember, however, is feeling concerned about how I or other people will be impacted by all of these things (except perhaps for destroyed property, buildings, or cultural landmarks).
In the pursuit of extraction and control, the dominant narrative of the western world has left out the part about how humans are impacted by the things we do to the planet and each other; that human well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of our ecosystem. Indigenous peoples have always known this. And as the intersecting crises of racial injustice, COVID-19, and climate change rage on, more people are awakening to this reality. Climate change is a threat and crisis multiplier, and this is especially true for health (United Nations, 2021).
Experts have made connections between COVID-19 and climate change (more information here and here) and note that "no country is immune to avoidable loss of lives arising from widening inequalities" of climate change (The Lancet, 2021). Communities and people experiencing inequitable access to resources, environmental and systemic racism, pre-existing health issues, and other forms of marginalization are subjected to these hazards more often and feel the effects more intensely. So when the UN names climate change as the "biggest threat modern humans have ever faced", we must also think about it from the context of health (United Nations, 2021).
I also recommend watching an excellent TED Talk by by Dr. Cheryl Holder titled "The link between climate change, health and poverty" in which she shares how her low-income patients were showing her how urgent and severe the climate change health emergency is (TED, 2020).
Ironically, the healthcare sector creates a staggering amount of pollution, unrecyclable waste, and greenhouse gases every year, and as a result, is contributing to worsening health outcomes locally and globally (Lenzen et al., 2020). The National Health Service in the UK is an example of a healthcare system making strides to amend this by embodying their role as an anchor institution and shift practices accordingly (Reed & Göpfert, 2019). The importance of this role in influencing and promoting healthy and sustainable practices among employees, patients, and wider into the community has been significant and continues to aim for further reductions (Al-Hadithy & Knight, 2019).
What can we do about it?
Thankfully, education about climate change and the environment has come a long way since I was a child, however, sharing this information with younger generations is still vital. Dr. Katherine Hayhoe has developed some great videos through her Global Weirding YouTube channel, and draws parallels between health and climate change in friendly layperson language:
We hope this post provides resources for you to learn about and share with others, especially healthcare professionals who have power to help our systems integrate a climate change lens, as well as prepare for and prevent worse health outcomes for our most marginalized communities. Dr. Cheryl Holder emphasizes interprofessional collaboration to address these health effects, as well as engendering respect and power in community to advocate for and affect systemic change (TED, 2020). Other examples of amazing healthcare professionals doing this work include Dr. Rupa Marya and Dr. Melissa Lem, president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and director of PaRx, Canada's first nature prescription program. You will find additional resources and healthcare organizations doing this work below.
Excitingly, health experts are seeing climate change solutions as opportunities to improve human health and well-being, as seen in the following figure by The Lancet Countdown (2020):
As Rouf and Wainwright (2020) point out, "It is time to see the links between health, social, and climate justice, and to see them as deeply interconnected as part of a wider global health frame". This shift towards planetary health, or the view in which "human health and human civilization depend on flourishing natural systems and the wise stewardship of those natural systems," is key (Whitmee et al., 2015). If we see our individual health as wholly interconnected with the living beings around us, we become aware of the incredible co-benefits of this worldview.
Additional resources for those working in healthcare spaces:
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Al-Hadithy, N. & Knight, K. (2019). The NHS must behave as an environmental anchor to mitigate the impacts of climate change. https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2019/07/05/the-nhs-must-behave-as-an-environmental-anchor-to-mitigate-the-impacts-of-climate-change/
Global Weirding with Katherine Hayhoe. (2018, November 29). Is Carbon Dioxide Really a Pollutant? [YouTube Video]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfq72W3RP_o
Grennfelt, P., Engleryd, A., Forsius, M., Hov, Ø., Rodhe, H., & Cowling, E. (2020). Acid rain and air pollution: 50 years of progress in environmental science and policy. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13280-019-01244-4
Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.). Coronavirus, Climate Change, and the Environment: A Conversation on COVID-19 with Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/c-change/subtopics/coronavirus-and-climate-change/
Lenzen, M., Malik, A., Li, M., Fry, J., Weisz, H., P, P. Chaves, L. S. M., Capon, A., & Pencheon, D. (2020). The environmental footprint of health care: a global assessment. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(20)30121-2/fulltext
Patel, K. (2014, September 30). A Brief History of Ozone. https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/11644
Reed, S. & Göpfert, A. (2019). Building healthier communities: the role of the NHS as an anchor institution. https://www.health.org.uk/publications/reports/building-healthier-communities-role-of-nhs-as-anchor-institution
Rouf, K. & Wainwright, T. (2020). Linking health justice, social justice, and climate justice. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(20)30083-8/fulltext
TED. (2020). The link between climate change, health and poverty. https://www.ted.com/talks/cheryl_holder_the_link_between_climate_change_health_and_poverty?language=en#t-423858
The Global Climate & Health Alliance. (2018). Banner Infographic. https://climateandhealthalliance.org/resources/ipcc-resources/banner-infographic/?mkt_tok=Nzc0LVNITy0yMjgAAAF8LofdF0nCm7AwSRsatYo9579aaqX1oSPIWUEREStLROkB3tSNlDARdwJjLsUqJ16vS24I6fDMqxHZ0kfzhoiOO9boWtt9b9anESItR8v9v0w
The Lancet Countdown. (2020). Explore Our Data. https://www.lancetcountdown.org/data-platform/climate-change-impacts-exposures-and-vulnerability
The Lancet. (2021). Climate and COVID-19: converging crises. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)32579-4/fulltext
United Nations. (2021, February 23). Climate Change ‘Biggest Threat Modern Humans Have Ever Faced’, World-Renowned Naturalist Tells Security Council, Calls for Greater Global Cooperation. Retrieved from: https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/sc14445.doc.htm
Whitmee, S. Haines, A. Beyrer, C., Boltz, F., Capson, A. G., Dias, B. F. S., Ezeh, A. … Yach, D. (2015). Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch. https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736(15)60901-1.pdf