Rethinking climate change action in perspective

in perspective
Fresh views and clear voices
Rethinking climate change action
It’s hard to escape the daily diatribes about how much action on climate change is
supposedly costing us, and even proponents tend to focus on the economics.
Dr Marion Carey is
Monash Climate,
Biodiversity and Health
Program program
leader and senior
research fellow at
Monash Sustainability
ow often do we hear from our leaders about the
benefits of acting to mitigate climate change, or
any arguments apart from economic ones? No one, it
seems, dares talk about climate change as a moral issue
any more. Talking about it as an environmental issue
doesn’t seem to be winning the day. So are there other
ways of seeing the problem?
In the words of World Health Organisation directorgeneral Margaret Chan: “Sadly, policy makers have
been slow to recognise that the real bottom line of
climate change is its risk to human health and quality
of life. Thankfully, however this situation is beginning
to change”. Climate change is a complex, abstract
issue to many, seeming to lack immediate impacts
and affecting people distant in time and space. With
an increasing cascade of scientific reports providing
compelling and disturbing evidence, we are not seeing
a concomitant surge in action.
Health professionals have known for some time
that just providing people with more facts about an
issue does not always change their behaviour – or why
would anyone still be smoking?. How we conceptualise
an issue, whether we feel it is an important threat to
us personally, or those we care about, and whether we
feel we have the capacity to act on the problem, can
all influence our motivation.
Offering solutions
Viewing climate change in a health frame can offer
solutions instead of just problems. The issue becomes
more tangible – here and now, about people, our
families, not polar bears. Health is already an issue
of importance, something we value. Talking about
increased risks of asthma, infectious disease and heat
stress can make it more real and personally relevant.
As health impacts from increasing extreme weather
and the implications of more indirect impacts become
apparent from poor air quality, food and water
insecurity, changing disease patterns, loss of livelihoods
and mental health consequences, the costs of climate
change can start to be measured in terms of lives and
The flipside is that acting to prevent further climate
change brings a range of health benefits, many of
which accrue quite quickly. Policies that reduce
greenhouse emissions can result in significant health
improvements and contribute to tackling the epidemic
of chronic diseases now facing modern societies. In the
words of a Lancet medical journal article, “the news is
not all bad”.
Actions to improve health
Reducing fossil fuel combustion from vehicle use and
coal combustion reduces air pollution, a significant
cause of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and
SEPTEMBER 2012 : WME magazine
premature death. Using the car less and walking or
cycling means being more physically active, and this
can have multiple physical and mental health benefits.
By designing our cities and transportation systems in
a smart, low carbon way, we can help to prevent a
range of health problems, save lives and save money
on treating illness.
Growing local fresh food can reduce its carbon
footprint and improve food security. Reducing saturated
fat intake from animal products and processed meat in
our diet, and increasing the proportion of vegetables,
can reduce our disease risk while also reducing
agricultural emissions.
By designing our cities and
transportation systems in a smart, low
carbon way, we can help to prevent a
range of health problems, save lives
and save money on treating illness
We are now learning that healthy urban design is
important for climate change mitigation. Keeping
our cities cooler and greener also may be positive for
health, helping recovery from stress and improving
concentration and psychological state.
Looking at urban development through a health
lens is not new, and there are a number of guidelines
or checklists characterising healthy urban development
that increasingly may be seen by developers as positive
selling points. Examples of “eco-city development” can
be found which focus on using local materials, air and
water flows, incorporating natural ecosystems, using
vegetation to control microclimates and enhancing
community life with improved spaces for social
interaction. Well-designed energy efficient buildings
with improved natural light and ventilation can deliver
reduced emissions and health benefits.
Health care facilities are increasingly being
pressured to take a leadership role in reducing their
carbon footprint. In England, the NHS is thought to
contribute a quarter of all public sector emissions. The
NHS Sustainable Development Unit has shown that
short-term reductions in emissions of about 40% are
technically feasible without compromising patient care
– and there are major cost savings into the bargain.
A vision of more walkable, bikeable, public transportoriented cities with cleaner air; less pollution, noise
and congestion; more pleasant open space; and energy
efficient buildings fuelled by renewable energy, may
be a better path to engaging people to act on climate
change for the sake of the real bottom line – a
healthy life.
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