by Jason and Rachel Roach
read : Climate Change (Part 1)
Health Implications – positive
New evidence has identified many positive health implications of addressing climate change. For example, developing low carbon transport and encouraging more walking, cycling and public transport will combat diseases made worse by inactivity, such as hearth disease. It would also be likely to reduce traffic injuries. Clean-burning stoves in developing countries will drastically change exposure to indoor pollution and so greatly impact the prevalence of short and long term lung disease. Household energy efficiency measures in developed countries will reduce the incidence of lung cancer and respiratory disease from breathing in pollutants like radon particles, carbon monoxide, second hand tobacco smoke, and mould.
The food system is also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Half of these are from farming-related greenhouse gas emissions from livestock (eg methane and nitrous oxide) and deforestation to create space for them (carbon oxide). Reducing consumption of animal products will also reduce our intake of saturated fats which cause heart disease. Low carbon fuel solutions will reduce heart and lung damage.(15)
The size of these health impacts is difficult to predict. Some will depend on the completeness of societal change or the particular policy intervention. Some will accrue over years, some more quickly. Many effects will vary between regions, cultures and individuals. However, there is broad agreement that the benefits for health of tackling climate change are significant and should influence public policy.(16)
Should we care?
The Bible affirms that Jesus rules the physical and spiritual realms of the universe.(17) Humanity is given the role of using and enjoying his creation responsibly, remembering that it ultimately belongs to him.
Secondly, God commands us to love our ‘neighbour’ is simply anyone who happens to cross our path.(18) In our age of globalisation and 24 hour news media we are confronted daily with how people in poorer nations are effected by climate change. The impacts of flooding, hurricanes and other extreme weather events are regularly reported in the news. Caring for these ‘neighbours’ models the generosity of God.(19)
Thirdly, climate change impacts our poor and vulnerable ‘neightbour’ most severely. These are the very people for whom Christians are encouraged to show particular care.(20)
What we can do
Tackling climate change requires effective action in all areas of society, from international bodies down to individuals. As Christians we of course must recognise that climate change is one of many important issues that need addressing in our world. However, if we are to obey our call to be a distinctive community, then we must consider how to respond to the ethical issues that face us today in a biblical and appropriate way.
Nationally, responding to climate change might mean lobbying our governments to consider changes to their public health policy. Priorities may vary from country to country, between developed and developing world situations. However, what the latest research highlights is that what is good for climate change is good for individual health.
Low carbon societies bring global health benefits. Therefore for a public health policy to be comprehensive in the 21st century it must integrate strategies to tackle the causes of climate change.(21) Hence lobbying the appropriate government sectors to increase access to clean energy, reduce consumption of animal products, and encourage cycling , walking and public transport should be on the healthcare policy agenda.(22) In addition better research, surveillance and accountability systems are necessary. Such investment is especially needed in low income countries least prepared to deal with climate change issues. Health policy across the board (public and private, national and local) will need to be more integrated in practice as well as committed to it on paper.(23)
Corporately and individually, the healthcare workforce should be encouraged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as appropriate for their setting. In this respect, responding to the climate change problem mainly requires us to do what we already do – but to do it differently. Whenever we seek to respond to climate change, in any area of life, we need to vies what we are doing from a different perspective by asking two questions:
- How can we reduce the greenhouse gas emission produced by this action/department/church etc? (Thereby tackling the cause of climate change)
- How can we reduce the negative consequences that are going to arise as a result of climate change for people we are working with in this sector/geographical area? (Thereby tackling the effects of climate change)
Tackling the causes
Whether we are thinking about a hospital, a surgery, our church or home, the answer to question one are often similar. There is a wide range of practical (often simple) steps we can take to reduce our emissions, or ‘carbon footprint’, and lots of information is available on how to do this. Three key areas to think through are:
- Energy use: 70% of energy use in primary care is attributed to heating so optimising thermostat and air conditioning settings, combined with checking natural ventilation and insulation is essential. In addition, turning off lights and stand-by functions and using energy saving light bulbs will provide substantial savings.
- Transport: 5% of UK road transport emissions can be traced to NHS-related journeys. Therefore where feasible driving less or when necessary driving in a way that reduces fuel consumption will help. Promoting and developing car-share and public transport initiatives, perhaps by providing bicycle storage and changing facilities, may encourage this.
- Waste disposal: reducing (using email and telephone communication and electronic storage rather than paper), reusing (eg using reusable coffee/ water cups in surgeries rather than paper or styrofoam ones), and recycling (eg collection bins for patients and staff, using refill printer cartridges, and recycling the huge quantities of paper used in healthcare administration).
These actions may sound familiar, and run the risk for some of being over-familiar, but we must not become numb to them. They will make a difference. For example, with around a quarter of the UK’s emissions coming from the energy used to run our homes, these simple steps would have a significant impact if we all did them. Healthcare institutions also have enormous power to reduce emissions, particularly the NHS as one of the largest employers in the world.(24)
In workplaces, voluntary organisations and churches we need people who are asking questions and pushing for change. For example, encourage colleagues to energy saving light bulbs. Passionate individuals could brief leaders of voluntary organisations and churches on how best to effect change. Just asking the relevant staff what policies are already in place can help to raise the profile of the issue. It often works well if there is a group of like-minded people from across an organisation who work together to identify areas for change. Coming up with innovative ideas to motivate and inspire people is really important.
Tackling the effects
Minimising the negative effects of climate change us perhaps more complicated, and certainly very context-specific. In this case, strengthening public health services will need to be a central component of our response.(25) Doing so is the only way to ensure our public health interventions will be robust anyway. We suggest four specific areas:
First, public health services will increasingly need to anticipate risks, becoming more proactive rather than reactive. For example, more heatwaves will necessitate improvements to housing, management of chronic disease, and care of the elderly and vulnerable.(26) Therefore participation in public health will need to broaden, for example, to include climate scientist, urban planners and housing specialists. A few countries have already developed warning systems for imminent heatwaves and floods.(27) Moreover, surveillance of risk indicators (eg mosquito numbers and allergen concentrations) and health outcomes (eg outbreaks of infectious disease and seasonal asthma peaks) will need to improve.(28)
Secondly, current public health projects need to be screened for future risks to climate change, to ensure they improve the wellbeing of communities in the long-term. (29) This is a complex task, and there will be some uncertainties.(30) Nevertheless, disease protection strategies must be reviewed and strengthened, and communication to the public must be enhanced, to raise awareness of the increased risks of food-borne diseases and allergic disorders.(31)
Thirdly, infectious disease programmes will need to be enhanced to ensure that food safety, vaccination programmes and detection and treatment facilities are deployed more broadly (in emerging at-risk areas) and more quickly (where increased risk of disease has been identified).
Fourthly, with increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters particularly affecting developing countries, there will no doubt also be an increased need for expertise and practical assistance on the ground. Health professionals could consider devoting a block of time to an area of the world recovering from disaster, or be on standby for new ones.
The case for man-made climate change is now widely accepted as irrefutable. Its health consequences include changes in disease distribution and increased disease and death from extreme weather conditions. Steps must be taken at national, institutional and individual levels to address both the causes and effects.
The case for action has recently been strengthened by clear evidence that addressing the climate change problem will have additional health benefits. Despite political reluctance, economic research has shown that the cost of attempting to mitigate the effects of climate change now will be cheaper than the cost of dealing with the consequences later.(32)
However, even if we take a pessimistic view of our ability to tackle climate change, the Christian response amounts to basic discipleship. This means we cannot excuse ourselves from doing it any more than we can excuse ourselves from fighting lust, envy and greed. Such a response among our communities will include calls for government action accompanied by individual action. In addition, as we take stewardship seriously we may well gain opportunities to explain the gospel.(33)
Jason O’Neale Roach trained in medicine and post-qualification spent several years working for the British Medical Journal. He is now engaged in bioethics research at Oak Hill College, London
Rachel Roach was formerly the Climate Change Policy Officer for Tearfund UK
- Confalonieri U et al. ‘Human health’ in Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Parry M et al Eds. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 391-431
- Costello A et al. Managing the health effects of Climate Change. Lancet 2009; 1693-1733
- Haines A. Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Lancet 2009;2104-2114
- Stern et al. Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change. HM Treasury 2006
- 15. Wilkinson P. Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: household energy. Lancet 2009:1917-29
- 16. Haines A. Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emossions: overview and implications for policy makers. Lancet 2009;2105
- 17. Colossians 1:15-20. Jesus’ bodily resurrection also affirms that the physical realm is integral to God’s plan for the Universe
- 18. Luke 10:25-37
- 19. Matthew 5:44-45
- 20. Deuteronomy 15:11. See also Leviticus 23:22; 1 Kings 21; Proverbs 14:31; Psalm 72:2,4,12-14; Galatians 2:9-10
- 21. Costello A et al. Art cit 1728-29
- 22. Haines A. Art cit 1728-29
- 23. Costello A et al. Art cit 1728-29
- 24. Coote A. What health services could do about climate change. BMJ 2006;332:1343-1344
- 25. WHO. Protecting health from climate change – World Health Day 2008. WHO Report 2008
- 26. Kovats Rand Hajat S. Heat Stress and Public Health: A Critical Review. Ann Rev Public Health 2008;29:41-55
- 27. Menne B and Bertolinni R. Art cit
- 28. Blashki G et al. Climate Change and Primary Health Care. Australian Family Psysician 2007; 36(12).986-9
- 29. Roach R. Adapting to climate change. Tearfund Report 2007
30. WHO. Climate Change and Human Health – Risks and Responses. 2003
31. Menne B and Bertollini R. Art cit.
32, Stern et al. Art cit.
33. John 13:34-35
Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) Files No. 41, 2010