Planetary Health: Why Reversing Global Warming Is Important For Human And Ecosystem Health

Two friends, an environmental scientist and a medical doctor, recently realised that their areas of interest in raising awareness of the need for a safe climate for current and future generations overlapped.

For Heidi, an environmental scientist, the dual wake up calls alerting her to the urgency of preserving a safe climate came when pictures of the Great Barrier Reef  bleaching events  flooded the news, and when she realised her young children could be impacted by climate change. For Tammra it was the increasing realisation about connections between environmental and human health that alerted her to the urgency of taking action to spread the message to keep our planet’s climate liveable in order to keep us all healthy.

Here they share two perspectives, one medical and one scientific, to illustrate the connections between accelerated deterioration of ecosystem health and its effect on human health, a simple but powerful connection known as planetary health. They also share their insights into the solutions to reversing global warming. Many of the solutions are within our immediate reach and are good for our health, and our bank balances!

The medical practitioner’s view on why we want a safe climate for ourselves and future generations: Dr Tammra Warby

When I was 12 I gave a talk at a local speech competition titled “Our Dying Oceans”. Fast forward nearly three decades and, arguably due to the effect of unarrested climate change on human health, today’s equivalent could be “Our Dying Species”.

The Lancet Commission introduced the concept of planetary health as human health depends on “flourishing natural systems and the wise stewardship of those natural systems”. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is calling the effect of climate change on human health the “Greatest Health Threat of the 21st Century”.  Let’s look at why.

The basics of human survival include water, food and air – all of which are affected by climate and ecosystem health. According to the CSIRO MegaTrends report, serious health impacts will be felt by the next generation in the form of water scarcity and reduced food security.

Climate sensitive infectious diseases may also emerge with serious impacts on people’s heath, according to the inaugural Lancet Countdown report. There will be an increasing burden placed on finite planetary resources including demand on freshwater and land, especially for the raising of livestock. Already only 0.3% of the world’s freshwater is available for human use and up to 70% of it goes towards use in agriculture.

Regarding air quality, the ‘Asian brown cloud’ kills millions per year. In Australia there has been a direct negative effect on the health of asthmatics, in the form of the Thunderstorm asthma event 2016, with a 3000% increase in emergency asthma presentations. In the WHO report Preventing Disease through Health Environments it was shown that, in 2012, an estimated 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment.

An agent for positive change is the Australian Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA). They have spearheaded the development of A Framework for a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Wellbeing for Australia to increase disaster readiness, improve carbon emissions from the healthcare sector, raise awareness within the community and support health professionals in recognising, preparing for and responding to the health impacts of climate change.

You can learn more about international research into planetary health at the Planetary Health Alliance co-housed by Harvard University.

Tammra’s suggestions for how to reverse global warming and protect human health:

The message is that climate change is not something happening ‘around us’ but ‘to us’ and is essentially caused ‘by us’.  Luckily, the changes we can make to reduce our carbon footprint and increase the health of our surrounding ecosystems, have some overlap with personal health benefit.  For example, riding a bike, increasing the plant-based portion of your diet and reducing meat intake (with 1 in 6 bowel cancers also caused by excessive red meat intake).  Besides these changes we should all conduct an energy audit of our home and buy carbon offset when flying. Visit CAHA and lobby your local politician about adopting the proposed National Strategy.  If we all make small changes they will add up and increase the likelihood of a sustainable and healthy ecosystem for future generations.

The environmental scientist’s view on why we want to reverse global warming to maintain a safe climate for our kids’ futures: Dr Heidi Edmonds

To reduce the impacts on human health, we must keep warming to 2°C as the Paris Agreement calls for or, even better, the more optimistic 1.5°C. To put this in context, the world has already warmed by around 1.1°C since the late 19th Century. With 2°C of warming of global mean surface temperature we lose the coral reefs and the Arctic is unlikely to refreeze properly again, not only altering local ecosystems, but increasing the occurrence of extreme weather events (such as drought) further afield, and contributing to global sea level rise.

Globally, yields of some crops and freshwater supplies will decrease while heat wave duration will increase. But if we head towards 4°C, large parts of the world, especially the tropics, are likely to become unliveable for humans due to heat stress and other factors.

Sea levels would rise by up to a metre, flooding large areas of many cities, including Sydney, Brisbane, New York, London and Shanghai. Food and water scarcity become even more serious and human civilisation itself may be threatened by food and water shortages and extreme heat events.

Children born today, who will be in their 80s in 2100, (when a 4°C rise is predicted for, if we don’t globally get our acts into gear), could see riots in the street over food and suffer the threat of extreme heat stress while witnessing growing inequality and social unrest.

Heidi’s suggestions for how to reverse global warming and protect human health:

Meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement and protecting our climate for our children’s health and wellbeing demands that we work towards living sustainably and that we advocate for a safe and healthy climate for our future.

A recent project, Drawdown prioritises 100 of the best ways to reverse global warming with available technology. The top 10 of these include three that we can personally act on (that also have potential to save us money):

  • reducing our food waste,
  • adopting plant-rich diets, and
  • utilising rooftop solar energy.

The 100 solutions are predominantly made up of “no regrets” actions – ones that have intrinsic benefits for communities and economies now, as well as benefiting the future climate. Such solutions can improve lives, create jobs, restore ecosystem health and advance human health.

Getting involved in advocacy for reversing global warming is one of the most powerful ways you can make a difference to protect our safe climate.

So here are the other seven solutions that made Drawdown’s top ten  (and which you might like to encourage government and industry action on):

  • managing refrigerants,
  • increasing use of onshore wind turbines,
  • protecting and reforesting tropical forests,
  • using the education of girls and improvement of access to contraception for families, especially in developing countries, to slow global population growth,
  • solar energy farms,
  • and silvopasture (an ancient approach to raising livestock that integrates trees and pasture).

Keeping warming to 2°C may also require carbon capture technology to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, such as seaweed farming, soil sequestration and bioplastics.

To summarise:

Based on our current emissions, we will reach 2°C of warming by 2036 if we continue with a business-as-usual approach. With such short time frames, you can see why leading climate voices are calling for major intervention over the next few years, especially in the areas of renewable energy, buildings and infrastructure, transport, land-use, heavy industry and finance.

In light of this urgency, there are plenty of inspirational stories to motivate us to play our parts. For example, Elon Musk’s Tesla electric vehicles and big battery in South Australia; ClimeWorks carbon capture project in Switzerland; and the 30% of Queensland dwellings with rooftop solar.

Climate change doesn’t belong just to the scientists. The ability to help reverse global warming belongs to all of us. We don’t want a world with increasing incidences of heat stress and less food on the table.

We want a safe climate for our kids and for future generations. We are already seeing more extreme heat waves, droughts and fires. It’s time to do all we can to protect our kids’ liveable world.

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Heidi Edmonds

Heidi Edmonds

Heidi Edmonds is an eco-blogger with a passion for simple, sweet and inspiring stories about science and the environment. She has a love of maps, data and good stories. Check out her blog at climatekiss.com.

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