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In the age of climate sickness, we need a prescription for a healthy planet

by Belinda Miller

With the spotlight on COP26, global health leaders are coming together to advocate for substantive action to address the greatest threat to public health that we face today.

Our climate is literally making us sick

  • Air pollution, particularly from burning fossil fuels, causes over seven million premature deaths globally each year. This isn’t a problem restricted to megacities: poor air quality is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK, with long-term exposure significantly increasing the incidence of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as lung cancer.
  • Extreme weather events such as heatwaves, storms, floods and wildfires directly claim the lives of thousands, and disrupt the lives of millions more, impacting health services around the world. The UK has seen 9 of its 10 hottest years on record in the last decade, and in 2020 alone, heatwaves killed 2,500 people.
  • Extreme weather events are increasingly disrupting food systems, which exacerbates food insecurity, malnutrition and hunger.
  • A warming climate drives the rise of insect-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever
  • Ongoing habitat destruction to grow commodity crops has increased the number of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19.
  • Increased flooding events can cause sewer overflows that may lead to water pollution and associated public health risks.
  • And anxiety around the climate crisis, and its current and future impacts, is having a growing toll on our mental health with increases in PTSD.

No wonder that the era we are entering has been described as one of climate sickness¹. In the sixth ‘The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change’ report, scientists identify 44 indicators of health that are strongly tied to a warming climate and expose the “unabated rise in the health impacts of climate change, and a delayed and inconsistent response of countries around the world.”

At least the global healthcare community is taking a stand. To coincide with COP26, more than 4,000 health professionals, and 450 organisations (representing over 45 million health workers), signed an open letter – the Healthy Climate Prescription – urging global leaders to “avert the impending health catastrophe” by limiting global warming to 1.5°C, and to make human health and equity central to all climate change mitigation and adaptation actions.

The letter (which you can sign here) reiterates the immediate benefits of cleaner air and water, healthier and more secure food supplies, a resilient, low-carbon health sector, greener transportation and community design

So what is happening in the UK?

As the UK’s largest employer, the NHS has a key role in national efforts to reduce emissions. Last year, it published its Delivering a “Net Zero” National Health Service report which articulated its commitment to achieving net zero for directly controlled and influenced emissions by 2040 and 2045, respectively². All NHS trusts and ICS’s are expected to develop their own local carbon reduction plans by April 2022. Around a fifth of trusts have already declared a climate emergency and many in the NHS recognise climate change as the public health challenge of our century, seeing it as essential to develop adaptation plans for the changes that are already baked in.

According to a survey of NHS Providers quoted in HSJ³, 98% of front line NHS staff see climate change as a priority, with 78% of trust leaders agreeing that net zero will be a key priority over the coming year, despite the challenges of winter and the ongoing pandemic. Half of respondents had already made changes to climate-sensitive operations, including procurement plans, energy suppliers and logistics.

However, despite high willingness to act, 60% express concern about their ability to deliver in 2022, with more than half of trust leaders concerned about resourcing. Three quarters are keen to learn more about sustainability best practice in light of the challenges. Collaboration and innovation across the NHS are seen as essential, as is pragmatic and consistent leadership to inspire colleague action around sustainable behaviour change.

Through advocacy of health-centred climate solutions, the delivery of net zero outcomes, and the adoption of sustainability initiatives, the NHS and its people have the potential to play a massive part in how the UK mitigates and adapts to climate change, while acting to lessen the associated health impacts from this national and global crisis.

We can help

From culture change to behavioural interventions for colleagues, partners or patients, we can help you change behaviours to embrace sustainability and act in the face of the climate crisis.

For a chat about any of these topics, please drop me a line at Belinda.Miller@how-on-earth.co.uk

Sources:

¹https://gizmodo.com/the-era-of-climate-sickness-has-arrived-1847903223
²https://www.england.nhs.uk/greenernhs/
³https://www.hsj.co.uk/service-design/greening-the-nhs-is-about-more-than-net-zero/

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