Health – Climate of change

It was great to see Leonardo di Caprio use his moment of glory at the Oscars recently to make public his views on climate change.Whether or not you are a believer in man-made climate change, the reality is that 2015 was the hottest year on record on our planet. Along with the high temperatures, we are also seeing more extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and flooding, drought and intense tropical storms as well as sea level rise and rising ocean acidity due to increased carbon dioxide levels. Man-made or not, these findings are scientific fact.

So why is this important from a health point of view? A year ago at a World Health Organisation summit, more than 400 high-level health delegates from all regions of the world agreed unanimously that climate change poses “unacceptable risks” to global public health. Some examples are:
• higher temperatures and extreme weather events can lead to injury, local disruption to vital daily living amenities such as food, water and shelter, and increased illness and disease in some cases
• rising ocean acidity and sea levels will impact upon sea-life and the food chain, as well as our ability to live in coastal area eventually, which leads to forced migration and changes in livelihood which could be detrimental to health status
• changes in climate leads to changing patterns of infectious diseases (such as malaria, dengue fever and cholera), and food and water shortages

But it’s not all doom and gloom, because a lot of the possible changes that we can make as a society to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions could bring benefits to our health, and are relatively easy for an individual to consider and hopefully act upon, such as:
• A healthier diet, with less reliance on red meat, and increased reliance on locally grown, seasonal produce lowers the risk for many diseases such as bowel cancer, heart disease and stroke, cuts agricultural emissions, plus helps to stimulate the local economy for growers and producers.
• Reducing our use of fossil fuels in our cars by cycling and walking lowers the emissions from cars and reduces air pollution – and of course the physical effects on the body of increased exercise is a wonder tonic for reducing the chances of all manners of chronic disease.
• Using clean and efficient heating in our homes reduces the chance of things like asthma and chest infections among in the most vulnerable in our society – the young and the elderly.

As health professionals, it may not seem to be our main scope of practice, but if at our core we are duty bound to look after the health and wellness of our patients, then we have a duty to consider the impacts of climate change.
Taking action

Below are the five actions that the WHO summit agreed that health professionals should be taking. None of it is easy or simple, but if we can rise to the challenge and look at implementing these ideas as health professionals, our example could inspire others to get on board.

Learn about specific climate-related threats to the populations and patients with whom we work, and develop plans to combat them.

Many impacts of climate change are avoidable through application of public health interventions, such as disease surveillance, disaster preparedness, mosquito control, nutritional supplementation and vaccines. As health professionals, we can work to strengthen our capacities in these areas.

Engage in local public health and environmental policy making to ensure that interventions to mitigate climate change are designed to maximize human wellbeing (such as ensuring urban plans encourage more walking and physical activity, less use of cars and less air pollution).

Lead by example through reducing carbon emissions in our own workplaces and homes.

Use our knowledge and authority to advocate for a strong and effective climate agreement, and for health to be at the centre of all climate change policies and plans.