Tackling the climate crisis and protection of our ecosystem must be at the heart of public health policy

Greta Thunberg has accepted an Honorary Membership of the Faculty of Public Health. This demonstrates the urgent need to put the climate crisis and protection of our ecosystem at the heart of public health policy, writes Maggie Rae

Greta accepted our invitation to become an Honorary Member of the Faculty because she recognises that public health professionals see the need for immediate action to protect our environment. That is why, in November 2019, the Faculty joined the growing number of organisations declaring a climate emergency, citing the harm caused to the global ecosystem through ocean acidification, deforestation, and loss of wildlife.

Across the world, public health specialists are increasingly drawing the links between the crises in climate, health, and ecology. Impacts such as air pollution, drought, and zoonotic transmission of viruses show how harm to the natural world has devastating consequences for human health on a massive scale, while the disproportionate impact of the covid-19 pandemic on deprived communities—where the virus has exploited weaknesses such as overcrowded housing—has underscored how health crises hit the poorest hardest.

Hurting the poorest is hardwired into the climate crisis. Time and again, its most dramatic manifestations are seen in its impact on deprived communities. Examples include landslides caused by deforestation, industrial pollution of water supplies and the suffering of the old and young trying to escape rising temperatures while living in makeshift homes. In 2019, environmental disasters displaced around 25 million people in 145 countries and territories. Almost all of them were weather-related.

It is vital that this unequal impact is not repeated in the distribution of covid-19 vaccines. That is why we have joined with the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges in calling on the UK government to release 30% of its pre-purchased vaccine orders to countries least able to secure supplies, as well as support the scaling up of local manufacturing capacity in low-and middle-income countries and share expertise about meeting the logistical challenges of vaccine delivery.

There is growing understanding of the link between the climate crisis and infectious diseases. Global warming is increasing the geographic distribution of mosquitoes, exposing a large proportion of the world’s population to mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and Zika. 

The risk of zoonotic spillover events, such as those which have led to the outbreaks of SARS and MERS and possibly covid-19, may be worsened by human encroachment into wildlife habitats, exploitation of wildlife, and loss of biodiversity. All over the world countless local actions such as cutting down trees or diverting a watercourse, accumulate to deliver devastating harm on our natural world and increase the risk of pandemics. We draw false comfort from the idea that covid-19 is a “once in a century event.” The truth is that we have had several near misses, and each day we are increasing the chances that our luck will run out again in months or years rather than decades.

As we gradually bear down on covid-19 worldwide, look at the lessons learned and begin to rebuild, it is crucial that we acknowledge that the crises in health, climate and ecology are being driven by the same human behaviours, and have common solutions.

The fight for our natural world is indistinguishable from our global efforts to improve human health and wellbeing. Inspired by the example of Greta Thunberg, we need to commit to tackling the climate crisis as part of our professional duties as healthcare professionals. Our future safety lies as much in protecting the natural world as it does in manufacturing vaccines.

Maggie Rae, President, Faculty of Public Health. 

Competing interests: none declared.