Celebrate World Environment Day with two new analyses of the public health role in climate change

Tuesday June 5th was World Environment Day, an annual event run by the United Nations Environment Programme, with the aim of bringing people together to ensure a cleaner, greener and brighter outlook both for themselves and future generations. Fittingly, on World Environment Day, PLoS Medicine published two articles on the theme of health and climate change that reflect on the November 2011 UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa, and argue that the public health community must better address climate change.

Image Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Peter Byass of Umeå University in Sweden and his co-authors argue that top-down advocacy on health and climate at the UN level needs to be mirrored by bottom-up public health actions that bring health and climate co-benefits. They say: “It is becoming increasingly clear that maintaining a sustainable and healthy climate is something that can only be achieved by means of a concerted global effort, including large-scale and small-scale actions, in which the public health community must play an active part.” For individuals, clear public health messages about climate are needed: encouraging people to eat healthy, locally-produced food and walk or cycle rather than drive is a good start. However, it’s hard for individuals to fully regulate their carbon footprint independently of the society in which they live, so larger-scale actions are equally important: for example, the health sector needs to consider and reduce its carbon usage.

Jerome Singh of the University of KwaZulu-Natal maintains that human health and health ethics considerations must be given equal status to economic considerations in climate change discussions. He writes: “The gap in ethics governance concerning climate change decision-making underscores the argument that policy-making on a variety of issues impacting climate change, including energy, transport, and development, needs to be underpinned by ethically sound principles, not just economic and legal considerations.” Singh goes on to argue that governments, the private sector, financiers, and society have a responsibility to practice socially responsible investment and to mitigate against the impact of climate change, particularly in relation to human health, both for current and future generations.

Both Byass and colleagues and Singh draw attention to the significant overlap between issues relating to human health and climate change, and call for a greater involvement from the global health community in climate change policy negotiations. Since climate change is likely to impact both on our own health and on that of our children, let’s hope that voices such as those of these authors, and of the signatories of the Durban Declaration on Climate and Health and Health Sector Call to Action, are heard, and that at the next UN climate change conference the human health perspective on climate change is given the prominence it deserves.

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