Healthy planet, healthy people

Climate change doesn’t just affect the planet – it has human consequences as well, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON

Climate change doesn't just affect the planet – it has human consequences as well, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON

AS POLITICIANS, civil servants, lobbyists and environmental campaigners settle into talks at the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen this week, a lesser known but arguably just as important group of campaigners will join them to spread the message of the health impacts of climate change.

Representatives from Prescription for a Healthy Planet are calling for a “strong binding treaty that promotes a healthy climate”.

More specifically, this international group of healthcare professionals is pointing out that health providers will be on the front line for the human consequences of climate change and should, therefore, be adapting health systems and promoting policies to mitigate climate change which will also achieve significant benefits for public health.


Campaigners are also seeking to promote health-friendly climate policies in hospitals and clinics.

“All the known or predicted impacts of climate change are going to lead to severe health impacts,” says Josh Karlinger from Healthcare Without Harm network which, together with the Health and Environment Alliance (Heal), launched the Prescription for a Healthy Planet earlier this month.

Genon Jensen of the Brussels-based Heal wants to see health ministers engaged in the climate issues because “they will have to deal with the mess”.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts that climate change will lead to a series of significant health impacts including higher levels of some air pollutants resulting in increased respiratory disease and allergies, the spread of infectious diseases such as cholera and malaria and more food-borne and water-borne diseases.

Extreme weather events such as heat-waves (the 2003 heatwave in France which killed 10,000 people is cited as an example), droughts and flooding will also affect food productivity, water quantity and quality.

International organisations such as Heal and Healthcare Without Harm have been spreading the message about the health impact of climate change for some time. But, it wasn’t until the WHO threw its weight behind the campaign a few months ago, did it gain wider exposure.

The WHO’s leading climate expert, Dr Roberto Bertolini, has said that climate change will involve “people having to change their behaviour in ways that would benefit their health such as reduced use of cars, eating less red meat, etc”.

However, he complained that public health doesn’t come up as strongly as it should in the climate change negotiations. “By saying that there are not only negative considerations or gloomy messages but also positive benefits, we think it will increase public support.”

Dr Philip Michael, a GP in Bandon, Co Cork is involved with both the Irish Doctors’ Environmental Association and the International Society of Doctors for the Environment. He says the health impacts of climate change have been largely falling on deaf ears in Ireland.

“We’ve been pushing this for years. It’s a late wake-up call for the medical profession and, generally speaking, people haven’t realised the health impacts of climate change,” he says.

“I believe we also have to lead by example. I haven’t used fossil fuels in my home for the past 15 years because we have a wood-burning stove and a heat pump powered by Airtricity. You don’t have to live in the Stone Age to live smart. It’s about re-orientating ourselves, but it’s a far healthier way to live.

“Although climate change is an urgent situation, it’s possible to be positive and people need to realise that,” he says.

The fact that the measures needed to combat climate change coincide with those needed to ensure a healthier population and reduce the burden on health services was stressed in an editorial in the British Medical Journalearly this year.

“A low-carbon economy will mean less pollution. A low-carbon diet [especially eating less meat] and more exercise will mean less cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart disease, and crucially for winning hearts and minds in richer countries, what’s good for the climate is good for health,” it stated.

The health impacts of climate change in Ireland are as yet unclear although geographers and meteorologists are saying that climate change was a factor in the recent flooding in various parts of the country. The subsequent problems with water supplies and the huge psychological impact of these unexpected floods have already been widely reported.

There are also studies which point out that Ireland will experience warmer summers and warmer if wetter winters. If this is the case, Irish people may have to adapt to hot weather.

Some researchers suggest that mortality due to cold weather in winter may be reduced in Ireland, although this also depends on addressing such issues as fuel poverty and poor insulation of many Irish homes.

Dr Elizabeth Cullen did her PhD on climate change and health in Ireland. She says the single biggest impact will be on water.

“We have to change our attitude to water. It’s our most precious resource,” she says. She states that there also may be an increase in vector-borne diseases [ie, diseases carried by insects such as mosquitoes] and an increase in allergies due to the arrival of new plants following changes in weather.

“The challenges of climate change is also a global opportunity. This is the public health challenge of our time,” she adds.

Halting the tide of global warming: tips on living a healthier life while reducing your carbon footprint at the same time

Food:If you buy fresh produce grown locally, it's good for your health and the planet. A University of Chicago study concluded being a vegan was more effective in the fight against global warming than driving a Toyota Prius, which runs on petrol and electricity. Eating a vegetarian diet is arguably better for your health, too, as long as you know how to create a nutritionally balanced diet without protein from meat.

Travel:Public transport is the big issue here – to and from work and in and out of cities and towns. Air travel is, however, the biggest cause of high carbon footprints among those who use this form of transport more than once or twice a year. Whether or not you find public transport healthier than driving a car (don't forget to walk or cycle for short distances) is personal and largely depends on the efficiency of the public transport service.

Work:If you work in an office, become an agent for climate change and encourage energy efficiency, the use of renewable energies and reduction of waste. The website is signing up offices, hospitals, sports clubs and other groups to reduce emissions by 10 per cent by 2010.

Exercise:The new trend to exercise in parks is certainly good for you and the environment. Gyms are expensive to run (start a "green your gym" campaign). Outdoor running and circuit training in green spaces is good for your health and reduces your carbon footprint.

Shopping:Swopping is the new shopping, according to one young green innovator. Rampant consumerism is a leading cause of high greenhouse gas emissions. Over-packaged goods transported halfway round the globe are particularly culpable. Shopping local for locally produced items saves on both counts. The development of recycling websites also means someone can enjoy your cast-offs.

Family life:Disposable nappies can account for up to 50 per cent of domestic waste when there's a baby in the family. Reusable nappies cut down on this waste dramatically. Breast milk is also cheaper, healthier and kinder to the planet (fewer plastic bottles, sterilisers and formula tins). Wooden toys from sustainable forests are preferable to plastic as are birthday parties at home.

Philosophy of Life:Slow down, de-stress and move out of the fast lane which demands constant consuming. Check out, a website which promotes lifestyle changes which keeps the planet healthy. The international Slow Food movement ( promotes healthier lifestyles by taking a slower approach.