Are you aware of the increasing connection between climate change and public health? This was the central question addressed during our recent Leaders 2050 event, held in collaboration with Rotaract at UN City Copenhagen. The event featured a lineup of insightful speakers, including Siddhartha Sankar Datta, WHO, John Christensen, UNEP-CCC, Henrik Fredborg Larsen, UNDP, Joseph Serutoke, UNDP, and Charlotte Melchiorsen, Rotaract and MOFA, who illuminated the profound and growing interdependence between climate change and public health.
Climate Change Insights
Siddhartha Sankar Datta kicked off the event and is a medical professional with a public health background, currently holding the position of Regional Advisor for Vaccine-preventable Diseases and Immunisation program at the WHO Regional Office for Europe. He is committed to strategising public health policies with a pragmatic and operational outlook to drive real change in the lives of those who need it the most.
At the event he emphasised the importance of supporting vaccines to protect against climate-related diseases. He highlighted how climate change is expected to worsen the prevalence of certain diseases, making vaccination a critical tool for safeguarding public health. Siddhartha also stressed the need for climate-smart initiatives, such as moving vaccine production to where it's most needed, ensuring equitable access, and adopting sustainable practices in vaccine development and procurement.
The second speaker, John Christensen, has over three decades of experience working with the UN Environment Program (UNEP), where he has focused on energy, climate, and sustainable development. John is a renowned lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 together with the other writers at the IPCC. He has also been a co-editor of the UNEP Emissions Gap report for 13 years.
John provided insights into the complexity of climate change and the urgency of taking actions. He highlighted the need for reductions in emissions to create a safer, more sustainable world. John urged strong political commitment and ambitious mitigation strategies. Finally, he noted that dealing with climate change becomes more challenging the longer we wait, as it is a manyfold issue requiring action on various fronts.
Public Health Insights
Henrik Fredborg Larsen and Joseph Serutoke are key actors within the public health sector. Henrik currently serves as Director of UNDP’s Nordic Representation Office and provided valuable insights by emphasising the need to believe in the possibility of reversing negative climate change trends. His perspective encourages us to maintain hope and optimism in the face of daunting challenges.
Joseph, who is Deputy Manager at the UNDP/Global Fund Partnerships and Health Systems Team listed several "must do" actions for the sector. These actions included that health organisations should do more to recognise and address the connection between health and climate change to promote more sustainable development. Joseph also urged actions to prevent the planet from being on ‘life support’ – a need to be pro-active to prevent impacts rather than re-active, as well as addressing the need for strategies to support weak health infrastructures in developing countries. His suggestions included mitigation and adaptation strategies, resilient healthcare systems, renewable energy use and better forecasting.
The evenings final speaker, Charlotte Melchiorsen, serves as an active member of Rotaract and holds a position as Team Lead in Cleantech, Invest in Denmark at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Charlotte contributed with a pragmatic perspective, advocating for Denmark's role in geopolitics. She emphasised the concept of "pragmatic idealism" and suggested building resiliency, such as transitioning to wind energy to reduce dependence on other countries. She also highlighted the power and importance of international collaboration, e.g. companies using global network to deliver food to communities in need.
Further Key Takeaways and Action Points
1. More should be done to highlight the hidden impact climate change has on public health
Climate change has an extensive influence on public health. While rising temperature and environmental issues are typically considered as the direct impacts of climate change, the resulting consequences extend far beyond that, such as:
Food security: Climate change affects crop yields and can lead to food scarcity. This, in turn, impacts the access individuals and communities have to sufficient nutrition, which can result in a range of health problems, especially among vulnerable populations.
Air quality: Climate change can exacerbate air pollution, which has a direct and harmful impact on respiratory health. This can lead to increased cases of asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses.
Extreme weather events: More frequent and severe extreme weather events caused by climate change, such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, can result in physical injuries and mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to loss of life, livelihoods and homes.
Heat-related illnesses: Rising temperatures and extreme heatwaves can lead to an increase in heat-related illnesses, especially among the elderly and vulnerable populations.
Waterborne diseases: Changes in temperature and more extreme precipitation patterns, that can lead to drought or flooding, can impact water quality. This can lead to an increase in waterborne diseases, such as cholera and cryptosporidiosis, affecting public health.
2. Limiting the impacts of climate change on public health will require a holistic solution that addresses both the direct and underlying factors and fosters cross-sector collaboration
Dealing with the challenges posed by climate change and its implications on public health requires holistic action. Tackling only the symptoms of climate change or public health issues without considering the underlying causes may not result in lasting solutions. A holistic approach prioritises prevention over treatment. By addressing root causes, it is possible to prevent crises rather than merely responding to them, reducing the burden on healthcare systems.
Achieving fast and effective action on these root causes will require collaboration across a range of different sectors. Co-ordination between environmental science, medicine, economics and sociology will be essential. Cross-disciplinary efforts can provide a more comprehensive understanding of the challenges and drive more effective and targeted solutions.
3. The power of collective action
While individual actions, such as adopting eco-friendly habits like recycling and reducing plastic use hold significance, it’s important to remember the power which lies in collective action. We have the potential to accomplish great things when we unite for a common cause.
Engaging in networks, advocating politically and demanding systemic changes from our leaders, can support us to drive positive change more effectively. The synergy of our efforts has the potential to reshape policies, practices, and behaviors on a scale that no individual alone can achieve.
In today's interconnected world, collective action can extend across borders. Global networks and alliances work together to address issues that transcend national boundaries. Achieving a global reach is vital for building knowledge and supporting action.
Furthermore, success in one area of collective action can also create positive feedback loops, compounding its impact as a force for good. For example, the adoption of sustainable practices in one sector can inspire others to follow, leading to a ripple effect of positive change.
Finally, incorporating diverse perspectives is essential for delivering effective change that is just and fair for all. The reason for this is that collective action often involves people from diverse backgrounds, which naturally can lead to more inclusive solutions. Different perspectives contribute to well-rounded and equitable approaches to solving complex problems.
In conclusion, the event provided an eye-opening exploration of the complex interconnection between climate change and public health.
The key takeaways are clear: the challenges posed by climate change and public health require a holistic, integrated and multi-disciplinary approach, driven by the power of collective action.
As young professionals, we have the power to make a difference by integrating sustainability into our daily lives and advocating for meaningful change. It's a reminder that the future of our planet and our health are inseparably linked.