Researchers call for ‘planetary’ medicine to deal with climate impacts

By Umair Irfan | 07/17/2015 08:43 AM EDT

NEW YORK — Humanity’s advances in health, longevity and prosperity are in a precarious position as the environment strains under a growing population and economic development.

NEW YORK — Humanity’s advances in health, longevity and prosperity are in a precarious position as the environment strains under a growing population and economic development.

To forestall future threats and to handle emerging medical problems, an international research commission yesterday called for the creation of a new field of medicine: planetary health.

The commission, formed by the Rockefeller Foundation and the British medical journal The Lancet, investigated the links between Earth’s natural systems and human well-being, looking at how climate change and resource depletion cause problems like infectious disease and malnutrition.


"The concept of planetary health offers a new way of thinking about the health of our planet and its resilience in the face of pressures like climate change, urbanization and globalization, to name just a few," said Helen Clark, administrator of the U.N. Development Programme, by video statement. "This report is a very important guide for how the world could change course."

Human life expectancy, for example, has risen from 47 years in the 1950s to 69 years in the 2000s. But at the same time, carbon dioxide emissions have soared, forests have receded and aquifers have gone dry.

Conventional measures of public health overlook these trade-offs, especially at a global level, so a planetary health approach is required to ensure that public health interventions like draining swamps to curb disease-carrying mosquitoes don’t lead to water shortages that could claim lives.

The commission’s report echoes findings from another Lancet paper from a few weeks ago: Human health has progressed, but the planet has degraded to the point where the latter threatens to undermine the former (ClimateWire, June 23).

‘Unintended consequences’ of development

"Our economic and development progress over the 100 years has created unintended consequences for our natural world — greater pollution in air and water, an increase in extreme weather events and a crisis of biodiversity on which our planet depends," said Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation. "Our planet and its ability to sustain human life are in danger."

Andrew Haines, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who led the commission, echoed this sentiment. "We may have mortgaged the future in attaining our current level of health and development," he said. "[Conventional health measures] assume that any benefit to health is good and can be sustained indefinitely, and our contention is that may not be possible."

However, it’s challenging to connect the dots and predict the fallout from things like increasing greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the use of air conditioning to reduce deaths from heat waves, which in turn would increase the number and intensity of heat waves.

Steve Osofsky, executive director for wildlife health and health policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society, likened humanity’s development to an airliner. "This airplane is getting higher and higher — global health and disease are getting better — but we’re popping the rivets on this airplane one at a time," he said. "We don’t know how many of these rivets we can pop before this plane crashes."

To illustrate some of these links, The Lancet also published two new studies yesterday on how environmental changes affect human health.

The first study looked at animal pollinators like honeybees and their impact on crops. Disruptions and declines in animal pollinators could increase global mortality by 2.7 percent, leading to 1.4 million more deaths annually.

A push for the Clean Power Plan

The second study drew a direct link between rising carbon dioxide concentrations and malnourishment via zinc deficiency.

Zinc is necessary for proper function of the human immune system, and by 2050, rising carbon dioxide levels could put between 132 million to 180 million new people at risk of zinc deficiency and worsen risks for people already lacking enough of the nutrient (ClimateWire, July 16).

To resolve these challenges, the Lancet-Rockefeller commission offered several proposals, including diversifying diets, making hospitals and health infrastructure more resilient to environmental shocks like storms, and diverting fossil fuel subsidies toward health care.

The Rockefeller Foundation yesterday also pledged $15 million for planetary health, adding to the $200 million spent over the past five years on other public health and environment initiatives.

The mounting momentum linking climate change to human health comes at a fortunate time for the Obama administration and its climate ambitions. The Clean Power Plan’s goal to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants relies on a provision of the Clean Air Act that allows such regulations to protect public health.

While opponents of the measure have questioned links between carbon dioxide levels and emergency-room visits, evidence is piling on and health advocates are calling for action (ClimateWire, June 3).

"We have the solutions," said Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, executive secretary for the Convention on Biological Diversity. "The problem is that we usually wait until the last minute to start using the solutions."