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Climate change - is this the tipping point?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Health in a changing climate


The warnings about climate change and the dangers that it poses to our environment and public health have been known about for decades.

Of late, the pertinent question has shifted from 'are we doing anything?' to 'are we doing enough?'

At a recent conference staged by Public Health England and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we discussed just this.

The meeting heard the startling forecasts, contained in the most recent UK Climate Change Risk Assessment, which suggest that current climate projections indicate that heat-related deaths in the UK are likely to increase by 5,000 a year by the 2050s and that floods, whether caused by sea, river or surface water, could impact as many as 3.3m people in the UK by the same date.

Those at the meeting were told that such stark forecasts suggest we need to prepare now for the effects of climate change; though the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s research suggests that there is a lack of preparation in the health and social care sector.

So what exactly does the JRF research show?

In their report Care Provision fit for a Future Climate JRF highlights that an emphasis within the sector of keeping elderly people warm prevails rather than planning for higher temperatures and the need to cool buildings more effectively.

Overall the report finds that there is a lack of investment in long-term measures to tackle overheating. If these problems are to be addressed, there needs to be joined-up input from designers, care home owners and regulators.

In their other report, Public Health in a Changing Climate the JRF found that climate change health risks are only occasionally mentioned in Joint Strategic Needs Assessments (JSNAs) and rarely reflected in Joint Health and Well-being (HWB) Strategies, indicating that perhaps climate change may not be a priority for public health departments.

What’s being done?

It’s important to remember that although climate change isn’t mentioned in JSNA’s or HWB strategies public health may well still be contributing to action on climate change through its work with other local authority departments.

Public health departments in local authorities are in a good position to contribute to many aspects of climate change adaptation, which may not be directly related to traditional public health activities and therefore not reflected in HWB strategies e.g. planning, housing, regeneration.

Some local authority representatives at the conference recommended adopting the “One Planet Living” approach with its 10 principles of sustainability. It provides a framework for working across organisations and involving many partners in achieving a common goal.

Sometime it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all that needs to be done, however in my experience the logic of sustainability appeals to most people, it’s just we haven’t yet  reached a tipping point where people, politicians and business are sufficiently motivated to make changes at scale.

If partner organisations do feel overwhelmed by the thought of tacking climate change head-on it’s worth considering taking a different tack: using air quality as a means to influence changes in the transport systems; encouraging people out of their cars, onto their legs, a bike or public transport will reduce emissions, improve people’s health generally and help tackle climate change.

So an emphasis on the wider determinants of health rather than the more condition specific approaches is well worth considering.

Just how far away is the tipping point, to prompt more action?

This was discussed in detail as well as how we might try to move people and “the system” towards that point.

There was an active discussion about how public health practitioners could/should be more proactive with the media and engage more directly with politicians to challenge and advocate for changes.

Some felt that public health is too passive and all too easily side-lined when short term political and economic “imperatives” are seen to take precedence over long-term solutions which may require investment now, but will reap greater benefits in the future.

Some public health professionals may feel constrained in speaking out because they are civil servants or officers of the local authority.

The debate will continue.

Whichever camp you’re in, the key thing I took from the conference is that we need to make our voice, vocal or more subtle, as effective as possible to change the paradigm and our current plod towards the inevitable: “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got”.

But it feels to me, at least, that we’re moving closer to that tipping point as more and more people become aware of the impending risks, and also see the opportunities that can arise from reducing and addressing the effects of climate change.

Image: Harmishhk

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