Health and Healthcare

3 ways to transform our understanding of climate change and human wellbeing

A man walks by garbage at a polluted beach on the banks of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil March 16, 2022.  REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes. climate change

Climate change affects personal wellbeing as well as the planet's health. Image: REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Jemilah Mahmood
Executive Director, Sunway Centre for Planetary Health, Sunway University
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This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • The connection between our planet's health and personal wellbeing has never been more evident.
  • A planetary health approach is needed to make sustainable choices that prioritize the health of ecosystems and communities.
  • While governments and international organizations play a crucial role in shaping policies and agreements, the private sector also plays a significant influence on the trajectory of global sustainability.

COP28 was historic for several reasons: the recognition and inclusion of language on the need to reduce fossil fuel production and consumption is one; and the dedication of a day to the humanitarian consequences of climate change another.

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The most significant moment of the latest COP meeting, however, was a change in the narrative and the beginning of a recognition of the critical nexus between climate change and human health. The inclusion of a dedicated day on climate and health at COP28 is a testament to the growing recognition of the relationship between our planet's wellbeing and our personal health.

As humanity becomes more aware of the unbreakable relationship between our actions and their environmental consequences, the connection between our planet's health and personal wellbeing has never been more evident.

Oil, coal, and plastics – crucial players in human development – have become agents of our environmental demise. Oil makes us ill, coal makes us wheeze and plastics are infiltrating our waterways, breaking down into harmful microplastics that end up in our bodies and in our blood. The human race’s addiction to fossil fuels poses a formidable challenge to our collective health and the health of this planet.

The message here is simple: humanity needs rehab – but creating the rehab programme is incredibly challenging. The relationship between climate change and human health is an intricate dance with consequences that reverberate across the globe.

As temperatures rise, extreme weather events become more frequent, exposing vulnerable communities to the wrath of hurricanes, floods and wildfires. These events displace populations and foster the spread of diseases, creating a vicious cycle of environmental and human degradation.

As temperatures rise, extreme weather events become more frequent, exposing vulnerable communities
As temperatures rise, extreme weather events become more frequent, exposing vulnerable communities Image: Our World in Data

The impact of climate change extends beyond immediate disasters: rising temperatures already contribute to the proliferation of infectious diseases, altering the geographic distribution of pathogens and their vectors. Diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, once confined to specific parts of the world, are arriving in new places, putting previously unaffected populations at risk.

Addressing the climate crisis necessitates an approach that considers the health of both the planet and its inhabitants. This approach must unpick the uncertainty complex, as described by the UN Development Programme’s 2022 Human Development Report, where the everyday uncertainties we have faced since the beginning of time are now combined with the pursuit of sweeping societal transformations in an environment of widespread intensifying polarization.

Climate change has led to diseases, including malaria, arriving in new places
Climate change has led to diseases, including malaria, arriving in new places Image: Our World in Data

Enter the concept of planetary health, an approach that recognizes the unbreakable link between the health of ecosystems and human societies. By adopting this perspective, we acknowledge that protecting the environment is not just an altruistic endeavour; it is an investment in our own wellbeing.

A planetary health approach involves making sustainable choices that prioritize the health of ecosystems and communities. It encompasses policies that reduce carbon emissions, protect biodiversity and promote clean energy solutions. Beyond mitigating the impacts of climate change, this approach aims to create resilient and equitable societies capable of weathering the challenges posed by a rapidly changing planet.

While governments and international organizations play a crucial role in shaping policies and agreements, the private sector has the most significant influence on the trajectory of global sustainability.

Corporations are already transitioning from being part of the problem to becoming champions of change – but, as the COP negotiations prove, there are still many who want to build profile and profits based on a model that is unsustainable. We need to hasten the shift in business practices that is already underway, emphasizing environmental stewardship and social responsibility.

While there are a number of ways the private sector can play its role, the following three areas will deliver significant benefits for us all:

  • The private sector must expedite the transition to renewable energy sources, mitigating the adverse health effects associated with burning fossil fuel. Investing in clean energy, buying energy produced through renewable technologies and considering the climate-related ethics of where goods and services are sourced will contribute to environmental conservation. These actions will also promote public health by reducing air pollution and mitigating climate-related health risks.
  • Companies can play a pivotal role in reducing plastic pollution. Innovations in packaging, waste reduction and recycling are essential steps toward a circular economy that can minimize the environmental impact of plastic production and consumption.
  • The private sector’s commitment to planetary health needs to extend to the wellbeing of its workforce. Companies must prioritize the health and safety of employees by adopting sustainable practices within their operations. This safeguards the health of the global workforce while fostering a culture of corporate responsibility that resonates with consumers and investors alike.

The inclusion of a dedicated day on climate and health at COP28 is a testament to the growing recognition of the relationship between our planet's wellbeing and our personal health. As we navigate the complexities of climate change and its health repercussions, the private sector emerges as a critical player with the power to drive transformative change.

By embracing sustainable practices, investing in clean energy solutions and prioritizing the health of both the planet and its people, business entities of all shapes and sizes can and must stimulate positive environmental and social change.

The time for us all to step up is now. COP28 serves as a poignant reminder that our planet's health and our personal wellbeing are intertwined and that they demand a unified and concerted effort.

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Health and HealthcareClimate and NatureDavos Agenda
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