Science, Policy & A Green Recovery: Planetary Health and Human Health

15 December 2020


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

What are the links between the health of our planet and human health? Could climate change or deforestation cause the next pandemic?

In the final episode of our series on Science, Policy and a Green Recovery, Dr Rob Doubleday and guest host Kate McNeil explored the links between planetary health and human health. Invited guests contributing to the discussion included LSHTM's Professor Chris Drakeley, the Lancet Planetary Health's Editor-in-Chief Alistair Brown, the University of Liverpool's Professor Matthew Baylis, and the Yale School of Public Health's Professor Robert Dubrow.

Throughout the episode, they explored how human activity is placing pressure on the natural world and how that can influence the risks posed by zoonotic and vector-borne diseases. Guest experts also addressed how unsustainable human activities and climate change are contributing threats to human health from non-communicable diseases and as a consequence of natural disasters.

You can listen to the episode here:

According to Dr Alistair Brown, the Editor in Chief of the Lancet Planetary Health, the essence of planetary health is "simply about acknowledging that human health and wellbeing are dependent upon a stable, functioning natural environment." Global environmental change drivers ranging from climate change and biodiversity decline to urbanization impact human health through various mediating mechanisms, including environmental, social, political, and economic factors. He suggests that modern science and policy practices have siloed much of our understanding of human health and planetary health, and that we need to begin to acknowledge the fundamental connections between these fields, while aligning our responses to manage the world in a way which is beneficial for both our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our planet.

Throughout the episode, we heard from experts about how climate change is likely to increase the geographic range of species including ticks and mosquitos which carry viruses. We also heard how the pressures humanity is placing on natural habitats - such as deforestation in Malaysia - are placing people in closer contact with animals such as palm civets and macaques, increasing the risk that diseases will be transmitted between these species and local human populations. In addition to the increased risks posed by infectious diseases in a warming climate, we also heard from Professor Robert Dubrow, who described how increased heat and air pollution impact our societies' non-communicable disease burden, and how the displacement, disasters disruptions we anticipate will be caused by climate change will further contribute to poor mental health and a higher non-communicable disease burden.

Throughout the episode, experts emphasised that it is the most vulnerable who are most likely feel the health impacts of climate change. Discussion participants raised issues including the impact of increased heat on homeless populations, the increasing contact between humans and animals in developing contexts, and the increasing risk of major climate-change-related disruptions such as hurricanes to health system in contexts where infrastructure is less well-maintained. These examples highlight the fact that linkages between climate and health also have the potential to be an equity issue.

As we go forward, Professor Dubrow emphasised that we need both mitigation and adaptation measures in both the climate and health spaces. Alongside the transition to a low carbon economy, he suggested we need to take measures to keep our cities cool, and to mobilize the political will to get the regulations and policies needed to support the adaptation measures we will need to protect our health over the coming decades.