Climate Change: The Greatest Global Health Opportunity of the 21st Century?

By Sarah Kunkle and Emily Leung

In a 2009 report, the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate issued a dire warning: “climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” Last week, the Commission released an update to this landmark report, Health and Climate Change: Policy Responses to Protect Public Health, including the key finding that climate change could be the biggest global health opportunity of the 21st century. Last Wednesday, Mount Sinai Hospital hosted a panel of experts to present and discuss the report findings.

Climate change could undermine the last 50 years of global health gains. This includes the direct effects of heat stress, flood, drought, and intense storms along with an indirect impact on human health through air pollution, increased disease vectors, food insecurity, displacement, and mental health issues due to anxiety and stress associated with these events. In order to prevent this backslide, the Lancet report contains nine recommendations for governments to consider over the next five years.

Experts call for a more holistic approach to describing and addressing climate change. It should not merely be discussed in terms of environmental and economic challenges, but should be reframed as a human health and social justice issue. Those with the least resources are inevitably impacted the most, furthering global health inequities. The effects of climate change will be felt hardest by women and those in the world’s poorest areas. By expanding the focus to include the impacts on human health, the Lancet Commission hopes to increase public awareness and accelerate political action towards the goal of a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable future. The upcoming report on Planetary Health will reinforce this message.

Furthermore, addressing climate change in a meaningful way will require an international multidisciplinary approach that includes two approaches aligned with the Vitality Institute’s values: community involvement andcross-sector collaboration. In order to facilitate this, public health and medical professionals need to get a “seat at the table” when it comes to policy-making. Many medical and public health schools are placing a bigger emphasis on environmental health in their curricula to better prepare future generations of professionals. We supports this and have been advocating for prevention to be a more explicit part of curricula as well.

Engaging the private sector and continuing to emphasize corporate sustainability and shared value is also key as the UN Global Compact Initiative notes, “the well-being of workers, communities and the planet is inextricably tied to the health of the business.”

While tackling climate change often seems like a daunting task, the panel acknowledged that other public health accomplishments have been achieved through long and arduous struggles. “We have the technical and financial resources to tackle climate change,” Dr. Ian Hamilton, one of the report co-authors, said. “It’s ultimately a matter of political will.”


Do you have any ideas on educating and engaging communities on climate health issues or any other reactions to the Lancet report? We would love to hear from you! Tweet at the Vitality Institute @VitalityInst or Sarah Kunkle @Sareve.

Image credit: UNFCCC Newsroom

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