Climate crisis is a health crisis

 

Sir, – In a poll, 55 per cent of Irish voters named climate change as the most serious issue facing the planet. That was last October. The most recent Irish Times poll paints a very different picture, with just 7 per cent reporting that climate change was the most important factor influencing their vote.

The conduct of the election, too, often gives the impression that climate change is a remote issue, capable of being put on the long finger while more important matters such as housing and the health service require immediate attention.

The climate crisis isn’t something that will happen to the weather some time in the future. The climate crisis is affecting the lives of every Irish person right now. The same fossil-fuel pollutants that are driving the climate crisis are in every breath that every Irish person breathes. These pollutants are driving up rates of disease. At a conservative estimate, 1,600 Irish people died last year as a result of our polluted air. Not just from respiratory disease either; air pollution increases rates of cancer, heart attack and stroke, of hospitalisation for infection, of Parkinson’s disease, dementia, depression – and as research broadens in scope this list will probably lengthen. To put this in context, Ireland’s commonest cancer is breast cancer, with roughly 700 deaths a year. Quite rightly, breast cancers have been the focus of public concern and healthcare spending to reduce the risks and improve the outcome. But the 1,600 deaths from climate-changing pollution of our air are on nobody’s agenda. Those worst affected are the least obvious – the young. Early life exposure to fossil-fuel pollutants increases rates of diseases like asthma. There are over 1,700 new cases of childhood asthma diagnosed in Ireland every year as a direct consequence of worsening air pollution. Polluted air also affects the development of fundamental brain functions. The ability to learn, to problem-solve, and resilience to depression and anxiety are all significantly impaired by exposure to pollution. Today’s air is shaping our children’s lifelong health, physical and mental.

A misconception is that climate is a separate issue. The reality is that faced with the climate crisis, there is no such thing as a separate issue. Meeting the challenge will require questioning how we as a society manage ourselves and our world. The climate crisis affects every aspect of how we live and poses the single biggest threat to life on our planet. There is a lesson to be learned here from a movement that is gathering pace in healthcare that is guided by a simple and powerful motto: it’s not what’s the matter with you, it’s what matters to you. This movement has arisen to counteract the fragmentation of healthcare into specialties that operate on different bits of the patient without ever taking the wishes and needs of the actual person into account. This fragmentation is remarkably similar to the squabbling over social priorities that seem to drive our politics. Housing advocates are pitted against health system advocates, with “the environment” seemingly just another special interest lobby. If we step back and ask what matters to society then it is clear that the world we live in is the constant feature in all of these debates. It’s not whether health is more important than climate change, action on climate change is action on health. Action to support family farmers not just as food producers but in their wider – and vital – role as custodians of our natural environment is action on climate, is action on health. Action to build social housing that is energy efficient and environmentally friendly, to build non-polluting public transport that serves the needs of the community is action on the environment, is action on social inequality and exclusion, is action on health.

The climate crisis is a health crisis, and presents a fundamental challenge to politics as usual. Time is running out. To continue to ignore the climate crisis and carry on with business as usual is to squander our children’s future. To manage this challenge we will have to put aside issue-based politics and realise that there is only one issue: the world we live in determines our lives, our health and our children’s future. What else matters? – Yours, etc,

Dr CALLUM SWIFT;

Dr GABRIELLE

COLLERAN;

Mr OLA LØKKEN

NORDRUM;

Dr RACHEL McCANN;

Dr SANDRA GREEN;

Dr ANA RAKOVAC,

Tallaght University

Hospital;

Dr DÓNALL O’CRÓININ,

Mercy University

Hospital Cork;

DAVID GALLAGHER,

University Hospital Galway;

Dr ELIZABETH CULLEN;

Dr JAMES MORRIS,

Mercy University

Hospital, Cork;

Dr JEANNETTE GOLDEN,

St James’s Hospital,

Dublin;

Dr JENNIFER GILMORE,

Mater Misercordiae

and Saint Luke’s Radiation

Oncology Network;

Dr NICOLA SWEENEY,

Community GP;

Dr RACHEL WU,

St James’s Hospital, Dublin;

Dr RONÁN M CONROY,

Royal College of Surgeons

in Ireland;

Dr VINCENT WALL,

Cork University Hospital;

for Irish Doctors

for the Environment.