The climate crisis is a health crisis

World Health Day 2022 is dedicated to keeping both humans and the planet healthy, with the goal of creating a movement to organize societies focused on well-being. Two years after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency, governments worldwide still fail to see that the pandemic is but a first symptom of a world running out of breath.

On this occasion, this blog presents some insights from the International Science Council’s upcoming COVID-19 Outcome Scenarios report, to be released on 17 May 2022, serving as a stark warning that environmental action is required now to limit the scope of future existential threats.

Celebrated on 7 April each year, World Health Day marks the founding of the World Health Organization (WHO) and aims to draw global attention to a major global health topic. This year’s theme – “Our Planet, our Health” – explores the interconnectedness between human health and the climate crisis. Still on our minds, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted practically every aspect of our societies and laid bare the pre-existing flaws of our systems, and with it comes the question of a long-term sustainable recovery. Nonetheless, looming over us during the COVID-19 crisis is the single biggest threat facing humanity: the climate emergency.

“On May 17th the ISC, in partnership with the UNDRR and WHO, will release its report on the longer-term policy implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will highlight the very broad implications for every aspect of public policy and the challenges in both national and multilateral policymaking that need to be addressed, both to deal with the continuing pandemic and future existential crises. We need to learn rapidly from the experiences of the past 28 months in which much tragedy has occurred, and which will have echoes for a very long time. The pandemic is not over.”

Peter Gluckman, President of the International Science Council

The pandemic set back the sustainability agenda

The pandemic shifted attention from longer-term goals to short-term crisis management. Climate action, already insufficient, has been put on the backburner, as regions of the world scrambled to respond to immediate crisis, leaving them vulnerable in the face of longer-term disasters such as climate change. But the decisions that are made today, whether social, economic, or political, have far-reaching impacts on the climate and on human health. When the WHO warns that “90% of people breathe unhealthy air resulting from the burning of fossil fuels”, health and environmental consequences are clearly linked to political decisions. Driven by climate change, extreme weather events, soil degradation, and water shortages are not only impacting food production and food systems, but also displacing large populations and affecting their health.

Humanity needs to act and stand together in the coming years to address climate change, through greater international cooperation among economic superpowers, in sharing knowledge and experience to both fight the pandemic and address climate change and sustainable development, but also to make global public investments to achieve these goals.

The interdependence of human, animal and planetary health

The COVID-19 pandemic is a result of environmental degradation. When a human population encroaches on natural animal habitats, there is a risk of zoonoses, or “spillovers”, particularly when this contact occurs close to urban centres. Further environmental degradation and further encroachments on natural habitats force animals out of their natural environment, encountering human populations. Experts worldwide agree that, if humanity continues at the current pace, the spread of zoonotic diseases will become increasingly likely. COVID-19 is probably the first of its kind in an “age of pandemics”, underlining the need to reconsider the interconnection among humans, animals and nature. 

Measures to protect unexploited forests, to close wild animal markets, to preserve natural habitats and biodiversity, to enable coordinated research among countries on establishing how to effectively prevent spillovers, to assess pandemic drivers, to continue viral discovery in wildlife, among others, need to be taken now to address these future risks.

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Preventing crises rather than managing them

A common trait to most regions of the world was the unpreparedness to face the COVID-19 pandemic. Though it emerged as a health concern, it rapidly disrupted all aspects of society and illustrated the interdependencies of our systems. If our societies do not emerge from COVID-19 as more resilient, we increase risk by following old models of development, rather than investing in resilient, risk-informed, green, and more equitable societies. Many regions are already susceptible to natural disasters and epidemics and will not be able to face the effects of climate change while dealing with other potential crises.

Being a question of “when” rather than “if” disaster strikes, societies need to recognize the need for preventing and preparing better, to attempt stopping hazards from becoming disasters. As the World Health Organization estimates that “more than 13 million deaths around the world each year are due to avoidable environmental causes”, prevention for the climate crisis and potential future crises can no longer be an afterthought and must be considered as a high political priority at all levels, requiring investments in risk research and governance.

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Systemic risk briefing note cover

Systemic Risk Briefing Note

Sillmann, J., Christensen, I., Hochrainer-Stigler, S., Huang-Lachmann, J., Juhola, S., Kornhuber, K., Mahecha, M., Mechler, R., Reichstein, M., Ruane, A.C., Schweizer, P.-J. and Williams, S. 2022. ISC-UNDRR-RISK KAN Briefing note on systemic risk, Paris, France, International Science Council, https://doi.org/10.24948/2022.01

COVID-19 report will launch on 17 May 2022

For over a year, the International Science Council has conducted the COVID-19 Outcome Scenarios Project, resulting in a report that outlines a range of scenarios over the mid- and long-term that aim to assist our understanding of the options for achieving an optimistic and fair end to the pandemic, as well as synthesize lessons learned from the pandemic, identify the high-level policy considerations, and assess the options and barriers to their implementation. Launching on 17 May 2022, the report will be a tool for policymakers to better grasp that decisions made in the following months have long-lasting implications and must therefore be informed by long-term considerations, not only by short-term priorities.

See a preview of what’s to come here:

The “clocks” COVID-19 set ticking

Header photo by Branimir Balogović on Unsplash.

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