Planetary health has become the major determining factor of human health

On the matter of climate change and global warming, the fuse is lit. The current epoch of Earth is the “Anthropocene,” meaning that for the foreseeable future, the destiny of our planet will be mainly determined by human activity. In the past half-century by some accounts, we’ve managed to alter our climate as much as it has changed in all of previously recorded time. And according to accurate records and very intelligent climate scientists with no ulterior motive for overstating the facts, it has not been for the good.

Planetary health has become the major determining factor of our most pressing concerns regarding human health.  Consider the following:

  • Every year, we appropriate about 40% of Earth’s land surface to grow crops and feed livestock.
  • We use about half of the planet’s accessible fresh water to irrigate crops.
  • We have depleted the oceans of more than half of its wild fish and continue to exploit 90% of global fisheries at or beyond their maximum sustainable limits.
  • We have cut down half of the world’s forests and dammed more than 69% of its rivers. By example, the wild forests of Madagascar have been 90% or more destroyed.
  • Since the 1950s, the human population has increased by nearly 200% and fossil fuel consumption (which leads to global warming) by more than 550%.
  • Pollinators, which are needed for plants to grow, are disappearing worldwide.
  • Biodiversity loss is 1000 times the natural background rate of extinction. Every day, we lose 150 species, so every year, we lose between 18,000 and 55,000 species. In the past 45 years, the number of living mammals, fishes, birds, reptiles, and amphibians has fallen by half. Insects are going extinct and their numbers are falling rapidly.

Because of climate change, we can expect to see dramatic increases in heat-related illnesses and lung disease, catastrophic weather events (natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires and droughts), sea level rise, mass human migration in search of drinking water and food, geographic spread of vector-borne diseases like malaria and Lyme disease, and emotional depression, to name a few. Millions of lives, mostly in low- and middle-income nations where people cannot protect themselves, will be lost due to many of these problems. Animal and plant species are becoming extinct because of loss of coral reefs, forests, and other natural habitats. Simply put, humans are disrupting natural interwoven biological relationships that determine the stability of life on Earth. Why are we doing this? Some of it is done because we don’t yet have commercially viable alternatives for energy production and other industrial pursuits. We also pursue lifestyle preferences and corporate profits, and still lack global consensus about the dangerous path we are on.  In the past, we were unaware of the environmental effects of our actions, but now we know and there is no excuse for inaction. We might find ways to limit some of the damage, but if we don’t correct our course and focus aggressively on prevention, our descendants will inherit a world that is very different from today.

This Earth Day, doctors, nurses, and other clinicians worldwide mobilized around planetary health. The Lancet, one of the oldest and most prestigious medical journals, published “A Call for Clinicians to Act on Planetary Health.” This global call-to-action was led by the Planetary Health Alliance, and reflects an unprecedented commitment of the healthcare community to planetary health. It is essential that healthcare providers worldwide understand how environmental and climate changes impact their patients, and hopefully then spur education, research, preparedness and prevention. Climate change is not a zero-sum game to be left to special interests. There is no more important public health issue in our time, so we must muster the courage and energy to learn, teach, and urgently speak out in defense of all life on Earth while it is in peril from the destructive activities men and women continue to pursue. It is time for the medical profession to walk tall and once again accept its responsibility for the greater good, as it has done so many times in the face of pandemics, wars, and major socioeconomic deficiencies.

To learn more about climate change, please read the recent IPCC special report, which calls for deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in order to prevent atmospheric temperature rise exceeding 1.5 degrees Centigrade rise above pre-industrial levels. This is because this level of warming would lead to greater increases in climate-related health, economic, and sociopolitical risks, and perhaps cause an acceleration of changes that would radically alter life on Earth.

Everyone should, to the best of their abilities and circumstances, do something, individually and collectively. The place to begin is to learn and form an opinion(s). From there, you can decide if and how to take action. Please take the first step and do your part to become informed.

Paul S. Auerbach is an emergency physician and co-author of Enviromedics: The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health.      

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