The global ecological crisis is also a global health crisis

20 September 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

(Published as ‘Measures to tackle climate change bring health benefits, too’)

701 words

Something extraordinary happened in mid-September: 231 medical journals around the world all published the same editorial, titled “Call for emergency action to limit global temperature increases, restore biodiversity, and protect health.”

Led by a group of chief editors from world-leading journals such as The Lancet, The BMJ and The New England Journal of Medicine, as well as the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the editorial stated, bluntly, “The greatest threat to global public health is the continued failure of world leaders to keep the global temperature rise below 1·5°C and to restore nature.”

Tellingly, notes the editorial, the latter – the destruction of nature – “does not have parity of esteem with the climate element of the crisis”. This is an important point. As recent UN reports have begun to recognize – and as governments, by and large, have not – we face not just climate change but multiple and interacting human-driven ecological crises.

This is well illustrated by the concept of planetary boundaries, first proposed in 2009. Nine major Earth systems are identified and boundaries are suggested, beyond which we should not go if we wish to avoid destabilizing our planetary life support system. One of these, of course, is global warming exceeding 1.5 – 20C.

The most recent updating of this model was in 2015; at that point we were already in a zone of high risk for species extinctions and nitrogen and phosphorus flows, in a zone of increased risk for land system and climate change and approaching it for ocean acidification. Troublingly, boundaries could not even be established for a couple of the Earth systems.

The editorial lists some of the health impacts that are already apparent as a result of these changes, including a 50 percent increase in heat–related mortality among older adults in the past 20 years and a host of other health problems related to climate change. But it also points out that “thriving ecosystems are essential to human health and the widespread destruction of nature, including habitats and species, is eroding water and food security and increasing the chance of pandemics.”

Moreover, the clear link between unsustainable development and inequality is made clear. Not only are the most vulnerable people – “children, older populations, ethnic minorities, poorer communities, and those with underlying health problems” – disproportionately affected, so too are low-income countries and communities.

Ironically, these are places that “have contributed least to the problem” – which historically, and still today, is disproportionately caused by high-income countries. Yet these low-income countries and communities have less capacity to deal with the problems caused by these global ecological crises. The burden of ecologically-related ill health thus falls most heavily on those least able to deal with it.

Which is why the editorial insists that “equity must be at the centre of the global response” and that wealthy countries – such as Canada – will have to make larger and more rapid changes to address these crises. In fact, the editors all agree, “only fundamental and equitable changes to societies will reverse our current trajectory.”

The good news, they point out, is that the dramatic changes we must make bring with them “huge positive health and economic outcomes.” These include improved air quality – which “alone would realise health benefits that easily offset the global costs of emissions reductions” – better diets, more physical activity, improved housing and high-quality jobs.

Now doubtless this will all be dismissed by the same ranting fools that deny the reality and severity of climate change and Covid. But their uneducated and unscientific opinions simply can’t be allowed to count. Nor for that matter can we accept the self-interested views of the major corporations and their government partners that make vast sums of money through their war on nature. They profit from the status quo and ‘business as usual’, and have no interest in ‘fundamental and equitable changes to societies.’

But those of us who do actually care about the wellbeing of both the population and the Earth’s systems that support our wellbeing (and the wellbeing of the myriad of species with which we share the Earth) must, as the editorial puts it, “do all we can to aid the transition to a sustainable, fairer, resilient, and healthier world.”

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy


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