Friday, August 22, 2014

Health–Earth (H–EARTH): a new coalition for global health

Wellbeing is threatened by human-induced adverse environmental changes on a planetary scale, in a linked eco-social Earth system. These changes are already adversely affecting ecosystems, energy prices, food prices, and the climate. A “sweet spot” has been passed. From here, without major reform, adverse health consequences appear set to increase, reversing earlier gains. We have called this point of inflection "peak health". Rising inequality and poverty are causes and consequences of our imperiled state.

Altered weather patterns secondary to climate change are worsening heatwaves, droughts and floods, while sea level rise in in many delta is accelerated by human-exacerbated subsidence. Air and water pollution are major problems in many parts of the world; global ecotoxicity is under-appreciated. Food production and distribution systems are under pressure, as in some places are social stability, social cohesion, peace and security, undermining peace of mind and other aspects of wellbeing.
But solutions are emerging, such as cleaner energy, smart cities and a reawakening of sharing, include the Sustainable Development Goals. Recognising, assessing, forewarning, minimising and adapting to the risks brought by these issues is vital if global population health is to be improved and populations to endure.
H–EARTH is an interdisciplinary network building knowledge about global change and health for effective responses by policymakers, practitioners and communities. Linked with networks such as HEAL, Healthy-Polis, and The Lancet-Rockefeller Foundation Commission on Planetary Health, the knowledge synthesised by H–EARTH will be used for degrees and short courses, reports, journal articles and books. H-EARTH aims to help awaken the wider health community and the general population to hasten the sustainability transition, with many positive co-benefits for health, the environment and the economy, including in partnership with government, industry, community and advocacy groups using mainstream and social media. Understanding the adverse health consequences of unchecked adverse global environmental change is also important for many other disciplines, professions, and for all faiths.

Our website is soon to be launched at the University of Canberra at the Centre for Research and Action in Public Health. Memoranda of understanding are yet to be signed, but will likely include with Professors Wael Al-Delaimy, at UCSD Division of Global Health San Diego, CA, USA;
Tony Capon, Director United Nations University Institute of Global Health, Trevor Hancock, Professor and Senior Scholar, School of Public Health & Social Policy, University of Victoria, Canada, Jouni Jaakkola Director Centre for Environmental and Respiratory Health Research, University of Oulu, Finland, John Potter Centre for Public Health Research, Massey University, NZ, Andy Morse , associated with the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, at the University of Liverpool (UK)’s Institute of Infection and Global Health. He is also attached to the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections. The final likely founding member is Prof Sir Harry Burns, at Glasgow, Scotland, UK. He is the professor of global public health and co-director of The Strathclyde Institute of Global Public Health in Glasgow, Scotland. Originally trained as surgeon, he was the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland and is known for his strong advocacy for greater social and health justice.

I will occasionally update this blog.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cognitive dissonance, conflict and climate change

I recently read an article by Christof Rühl, BP's chief economist on energy. All is well in BP's world (forget about "Beyond Petroleum"). There is no mention of peak oil, no mention of the trillion tonne carbon budget, no mention of climate change, except obliquely - there is a mention of carbon emissions, but nothing to suggest urgency. 

Interpretation of data depends very much on one's "causal lens". (For example: what is the cause of a heart attack - is it a blocked artery, is it smoking, or is it the social causes of smoking? Could it be all three? Is it system? I think multiple answers are right, single answers too simple.)

Recently we had a paper on climate change, conflict and health rejected by a political scientist reviewer (curiously assigned by Medicine Conflict and Survival - we did not submit it to a political science journal). That reviewer wrote the "premise [that climate change and conflict are causally related] does not hold". That reviewer had a single answer, we think it is more complex. Some others do too, including in both health and the department of defence

Several relevant IPCC chapters use similar data to that in my forthcoming edited book Climate Change and Global Health to reach far more optimistic conclusions than I do (and that Clive Hamilton reaches), but try as I might I cannot fault the following broad reasoning:

1. Without dramatic acceleration of decarbonisation we risk 2 degrees + warming
2. That means more droughts, extreme weather, higher food prices and ongoing sea level rise are all likely; these act as "risk multipliers" that increase the risk of many hazards, including population dislocation and conflict. This may already be happening for conflict, and in some cases famine, eg in Syria, Somalia and before that, Darfur.
3. Hence “business as usual” should be unacceptable, as the cost will far exceed the benefits of continuing with fossil fuels. India may finally be awakening to the benefits of replacing coal with solar.
4. Hence, (peaceful) civil disobedience to oppose climate change is called for, in fact, it’s imperative.

While exceeding the trillion tonne carbon budget does not guarantee 2 degrees of average warming (hence “dangerous” climate change is not inevitable) we might get four or even more degrees of warming with only slightly more fossil fuel combustion. Also, if we were to exceed the carbon budget without provoking obviously dangerous climate change then the fossil fuel lobby and their denialist allies will just encourage even more planetary gambling.

Apart from Clive Hamilton and James Hansen there are not too many senior academics saying this really clearly; it’s rather surreal; sometimes it seems I am trying to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. The apparently surreal nature is probably part of cognitive dissonance, a kind of self-protection. It would be very comforting if I could really believe people like climate denialist Andrew Bolt is correct when it comes to climate change; I suspect that collectively many of us would prefer to not think the implications right through. (Recently however, Frank Ackerman has attacked fellow economist Richard Tol for being too optimistic, and for selectively analysing the literature.)

An analogy is the false calm ("The Gathering Storm") before WWII. Winston Churchill could see war coming, but most of his peers carried on desperately hoping peace would endure. Of course, the war did come. So too, global chaos later this century and beyond seems to be very likely if we stick with “business as usual”. Churchill couldn’t stop the war, and maybe we can’t stop dangerous climate change, but we have to try. And I certainly can’t do much on my own, hence I appreciate your ideas and potential opportunities. But renewable energy use is expanding at a fantastic rate, we must promote that as well as
energy efficiency. We must stay hopeful and keep advocating for change.