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Leon Kaye headshot

What About a Health-Centered Plan to Tackle the Climate Crisis?

By Leon Kaye
climate crisis

As COP27 launches this week in Egypt, it has become clear that global leaders understand something has to be done to take on the climate crisis. Of course, understanding, developing a plan and then actually executing it are three separate things — the globe can’t embark on a plan or program if there’s no roadmap in the first place.

So, what needs to be done if we’re going to avoid “climate hell,” as the head of the U.N. said as he opened the COP27 meetings? Sure, we need to invest funds to curtail climate change’s risks, as the U.K.’s prime minister reminded COP27 attendees yesterday. But does that mean more spending on renewables, more plans to stop deforestation, or, as poor countries have insisted, to follow up on rich nations’ pledges to pay for climate adaptation and mitigation projects?

While politicians continue to agree to disagree — or in what is often the warped drama of life imitating art, disagreeing on how to agree — there’s one approach for which few leaders have advocated.

It's finally time to stop talking about catastrophes that are still an abstract to most people and frame climate change in very real terms. Why not take a health-centered approach to take on the climate crisis?

Doctors certainly appear to be onboard such a plan, based on a recent report the Lancet has published. Among the many takeaways, three of them stand out in this report.

The climate crisis is undermining global healthcare systems

Many citizens are already facing limited healthcare options, largely due to inflationary pressures, geopolitical crises including war, and dependence on volatile sources of energy. The global pandemic has also done a number on healthcare systems, as COVID-19’s effects including supply chain disruptions haven’t helped. But as a result, the researchers behind the Lancet’s findings have found that about 30 percent out of the world's largest 800 cities worldwide have cut their climate action programs — and such downsizing has come at a time when extreme weather events linked to climate change put more people at risk.

“In 2022, unprecedented global health, economic, and conflict events have critically worsened public health, with climate change exacerbating the impacts of many of these events,” wrote the report’s authors. “Without global coordination, transparency, and cooperation between governments, communities, civil society, businesses, and public health leaders, the world will remain vulnerable to international emergencies.”

Healthcare networks won’t be able to cope with the surge in heat-related deaths

We’ve long known the long-term health impacts of the climate crisis. The rapid spread of infectious and zoonotic diseases are among such threats, as the COVID-19 pandemic made loud and clear two years ago. 

And even if people flee the coasts toward higher elevations to escape the risk of rising seas, they will find that they won’t necessarily be able to flee disease. The Lancet’s report cited research confirming that coastal regions will only be more susceptible to various pathogens. Meanwhile, in regions of higher elevations, the transmission of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever have also increased. 

All of these spikes in disease rates are linked to an increase in global temperatures. And, if the recent past is prologue, we should be worried: Heat-related deaths among the most vulnerable populations (people under one year old, or those over the age of 65) saw an increase of such deaths by 68 percent between the periods of 2000-2004 and 2017-2021.

Our health is at the hands of fossil fuel ‘overdependence’

While many citizens and leaders feel angst over the fact that little progress has been made on climate change since the 2015 COP21 talks, it’s important to remember that these talks have been ongoing since the U.N. hosted a signing of such frameworks in the first place back in 1992. Since that signing in Rio de Janeiro, fossil fuel consumption has increased almost 60 percent.

That impact goes beyond the massive amount of emissions into the earth’s atmosphere. The energy markets' ongoing volatility has continued to result in global supply chain snags, volatile markets and geopolitical conflicts. Further, despite an sizable increase in the deployment of fossil fuels, many citizens across the globe do not have the means to keep themselves cool in summer or warm during the winter; they lack a safe way to cook; and they often lack access to safe secure forms of electricity to keep the lights on. Even more damning, the report found that close to 60 percent of healthcare facilities in low- and middle-income nations lack access to reliable electricity — a harbinger of what’s to come as climate change exacts more of a toll on many nations’ healthcare systems.

“With the worsening health impacts of climate change compounding other coexisting crises, populations worldwide increasingly rely on health systems as their first line of defense,” explained the report’s authors. “However, just as the need for healthcare rises, health systems worldwide are debilitated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the energy and cost-of-living crises.”

Bottom line, while disinvestment continues in many healthcare systems, energy companies are reaping massive profits, a specter that does not bode well for healthcare systems worldwide as it appears the climate crisis will only worsen.

So, what can be done?

To its credit, the U.N. is increasingly focusing on strengthening healthcare systems worldwide by ensuring they are carbon-smart and climate-resilient. Bold action on behalf of the healthcare sector is a bridge that’s already been crossed — the industry’s total contributions to emissions worldwide stands at a tad more than 5 percent, not surprising considering what it has been tasked with. A global health program focused on climate resilience that emerged from last year’s meetings in Glasgow is showing some progress, note the Lancet report’s authors.

Some countries, however, are hardly getting their climate resilience bang for their bucks: Take the U.S., which has a healthcare system that emits 50 times more emissions per capita than India, yet its citizens can anticipate a life expectancy of only 76.1 years, a decrease so far this decade; meanwhile, India's has increased slightly to 70.2 years.

With that life expectancy statistic in mind, advocates for clean energy might want to change their strategy as to how they can break through to citizens about the human costs of the climate crisis. Talk about pollution, emissions, climate change threats or energy markets’ volatility aren’t getting through to many people — here in the U.S., look at the local traffic during rush hour or the gas lines at Costco or Sam’s Club if you’re not already convinced. 

But viewing the climate crisis through the lens of public health could change hearts and minds, especially if telling (disturbing or upsetting) images were a part of such messaging, as what occurred with the anti-smoking campaigns of a generation ago. From the point of view of the Lancet, change will be difficult, as the number one factor that needs to change is the globe’s addiction to fossil fuels. That means breaking some very entrenched consumer habits, but it comes with an additional payoff, as “increasing energy efficiency, conservation, and the use of renewable energy sources could give healthier, more resilient, and self-sufficient energy systems,” concluded the report’s authors. “Millions of lives could be saved each year by accelerating transition to cleaner fuels, healthier diets, and active modes of travel.”

If you haven’t listened to your doctor recently, then hear this one out. “The burning of fossil fuels is creating a health crisis that I can’t fix by the time I see patients in my emergency department,” Dr. Renee Salas, summing up the Lancet’s report, told NBC News last week. “Fossil fuel companies are making record profits while my patients suffer from their downstream health harms.”

Image credit: Adobe Stock (gajendra)

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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