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Public health in a changing climate

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Climate change, Health Protection, Protecting the country's health, Sustainability

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has now published its fifth assessment report, confirming the scientific evidence that the climate is indeed changing, and that this change is even more certainly due to human activities than was previously thought.  The Government Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Mark Walport, has confirmed his view that the science is robust, and many publications over the past few years, including from the Health Protection Agency, have carefully modelled the likely impacts on health, which are significant.

Not only is the science robust, but listening to the various debates and reporting of the IPCC's findings I gained a clear impression that the facts about climate change are increasingly accepted.  This is not only by scientists and environmental activists, but by the majority of politicians, community leaders and indeed members of the public.  The question for us all is, of course, what should we do in response to this most challenging threat to human health? This has to be a major question for an ambitious new organisation such as Public Health England, with its role to protect and improve the public's health.  I hear few who dissent from the idea that we have a responsibility to act; that it is happening "on our watch"; and that we wish to leave the world a better place for future generations of our children, grandchildren and so on. Even so, we seem to find it incredibly difficult to convert our knowledge of the problem and our desire to resolve it, into practical, effective actions that make a difference. While the IPCC will be publishing more evidence next year on the impacts of climate change on human health and on ways to mitigate those impacts, we should not wait until then to strengthen our work in this area.

Against this background, Public Health England's Director for Health and Wellbeing Kevin Fenton and I jointly chaired the first meeting of our Sustainable Development Strategic Oversight Group last week.  This brought together those who have led the many related work programmes in our previous organisations, and we heard how, for example, the NHS has developed a sustainable development programme and has started to reduce its carbon footprint; the Health Protection Agency reduced its own carbon footprint by 14% in one year with a massive reduction in waste going to landfill; we have a developing programme on "healthy people, healthy places" to support local government in strengthening healthy, sustainable local communities; we have programmes already in place to predict the health impacts of climate change led by our Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, and to respond to the worst effects of heat waves, extreme cold weather and flooding.  It was a tremendously encouraging discussion, and the real challenge for us now is to use the opportunity that comes with the creation of Public Health England to put all this together in a coherent, practical programme of effective action, working with our partners in local and national government, the NHS and elsewhere.

This will not be easy.  Whilst we have much excellent work going on, we will need to revisit the evidence for what works, especially once the IPCC publishes further next year, and direct our efforts, resources and staff accordingly.  This may involve stopping some activities, however dear they are to us, and diverting our efforts to others.  We need to go further in setting a leading example as an organisation that supports sustainability for our own staff - although some great work is going on we can do much more in supporting active travel and recycling, for example. In particular, however, some of the evidence for what will make the biggest impact on climate change can be deeply uncomfortable. I find it easy to argue for more active transport, which increases physical activity and health as well as reduces the impact on the environment.  As a lover of cycling this just feels obvious to me.  However, as a lover of meat, and especially rare steaks, am I really willing to argue for significant changes to people's diet, not only to increase fruit and veg consumption (obviously good for our health, and I love fresh veg) but to greatly reduce consumption of meat, production of which is a major sources of greenhouse gas emissions? Likewise, one of the lowest carbon energy sources is nuclear power - so if we advocate for low carbon energy (as the evidence indicates is necessary to mitigate the health impacts of climate change) we must accurately describe the evidence about nuclear as well as the obvious renewables.  Similarly, our planet cannot be sustainable if we continue with the current exponential increases in population and in life expectancy.  Are we willing to comment on, and address this issue in our work programmes on global health and in England?

These are incredibly complex issues, with arguments that can lead in many different directions.  Of course, we have to be clear about the role of Public Health England, to be an exemplar by our own sustainability, to provide evidence about the impacts of climate change on health, to advocate for and support strategies to protect the public's health from these impacts, and to support local partners with evidence and practical tools to strengthen healthy, sustainable communities. We have much excellent work from previous organisations to build on, and have made a good start in considering these issues. Now we need to build practical programmes that are effective in these areas, to be unafraid to change what we do if the evidence points that way, and to be unafraid to be clear about the evidence, even if that is uncomfortable at times.

I, for one, really look forward to the challenge!

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Graeme Duncan posted on

    Nice piece, great to find someone like you writing on this. I tweet specifically on this topic @xrisham. I will look for you there. Best wishes.