The climate crisis is a health crisis

No matter how good our medicine is, if we don’t tackle the systems which make people sick, we cannot heal them.
Rob Abrams, Abi Deivanayagam, Sara el-Solh, Rhiannon Osborne, Amiteshwar Singh

Despite several years of medical advances, diabetes is rising among adults.

We now know lots more about the factors leading to the disease and we’ve discovered several new treatments.

And yet one in seven American adults now has Type 2 diabetes, up from one in 20 in the 1970s, according to research by two dozen US scientists comprehensive in a national report to the United States Congress on the disease.

If we don’t tackle systems which are making people sick, doctors cannot heal them.

As the The New York Times reports, “There is no device or drug powerful enough to counter the effects of poverty, pollution, stress, a broken food system, cities that aren't walkable, and inequitable access to health care”.

In other words, no matter how good our medicine is, if we don’t tackle systems which are making people sick, we cannot heal them.

Locating the problem at the level of the system is critical for climate activists. Otherwise, we will simply place a sticking plaster on the much deeper wound of climate degradation.

Public health is a healthy environment

The UK is in a public health crisis. From the mental health impact of austerity to childhood food poverty, inequality is written on the body as poor health.

This injustice is starkly manifested in the almost ten year difference in life expectancy between males living in the most and least deprived areas of the UK. Over half of people in the UK say that their health has worsened due to the cost of living crisis and it’s now estimated that austerity caused over 335,000 excess deaths, likely through reduced income, poor nutrition and housing and social isolation. The government scrapping its health inequalities white paper in this devastating context is the ultimate act of complicity.

There is almost a ten year difference in life expectancy between males living in the most and least deprived areas of the UK. Image: Unsplash/Edward Howell.

Health inequalities are the result of extractive and exploitative policies and industries which rely on white supremacy, class oppression and patriarchy to devalue life for the sake of profit. The drivers of health inequalities generate immense wealth for some, while robbing others of their right to clean air, nutritious food and safe housing. For decades we have been told that our health is our responsibility, that disease is the result of our poor behaviour or faulty biology. In truth, lived experience and public health tell us that health is the result of our social, ecological and political environment.

The extractive belief that human wellbeing is separate to the health of ecosystems has led to the breakdown of a delicate web of interdependence. This inseparable relationship between human health and nature is evident all around us, from the importance of trees for preventing heat stroke, to the mental health impacts of flooding.

Trees can help prevent heat stroke. Image: Unsplash/Matthieu Joannon.

The connection between the climate crisis and public health becomes all the more apparent when you look at the impacts of polluting industries on public health. For example, the fossil fuel industry causes ill health at every stage of its processing, from drilling and extraction, to combustion and distribution, to the communities in the Niger Delta drinking poisoned water and mostly black and brown communities in London breathing polluted air.

At the same time, tens of thousands of people in the UK die every year from living in cold homes — because, in large part, of an oligopolistic, for-profit, fossil fuelled energy system. Industrialised agriculture destroys biodiversity, displaces indigenous peoples, increases the risk of pandemics, and fails to meet the nutritional needs of around a third of the world. Acting on these systems will end harms that are borne by both the planet and its people.

A healthy environment and a fair society are critical for public health.

A healthy environment and a fair society are critical for public health. A Green New Deal has the potential to achieve both. A mass retrofit campaign would reduce energy consumption and prevent deaths caused by cold, damp and low quality housing. Moving away from polluting private cars to affordable public transport and active travel for everyone for whom this is an option would reduce lung cancer and heart disease. Investing in well-paid, secure jobs in low-carbon and socially beneficial sectors such as health and social care would reduce the horrific health impacts of economic inequality and underfunded public services.

Putting health before profit

While it is absolutely vital that we demand climate solutions that aim to repair health inequalities here in the UK, any Green New Deal will fail to meet the scale of the challenge posed by the climate crisis if it is not based solidly on principles of international solidarity.

Not only have colonial state powers and financial institutions in the Global North played a disproportionate role in causing climate change — plundering the wealth of the Global South in the process — by and large they propose to continue operating the exact same exploitative systems under the guise of 'net zero'.

Garbage in the Himalayas. Image: Unsplash/Sylwia Bartyzel.

While our government promotes initiatives to get more drivers behind the wheels of electric cars, Congolese workers work for as little as 30p an hour in hazardous, unregulated mines to supply the raw materials needed to manufacture those cars.

In the name of domestic conservation, the UK exported 688,000 tonnes of discarded plastic packaging to countries such as Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey. By focusing on systemic solutions such as creating circular-economies in manufacturing, ending global corporate impunity and, most importantly, repaying the debt owed to the Global South, we can deliver a Green New Deal which guarantees a just transition by safeguarding health and wellbeing beyond national borders.

Health for a Green New Deal is fighting to put health before profit.

There are more than enough resources for everyone on the planet to flourish, but health for all is currently prevented by the capitalist economic system of colonial extractivism, endless ‘growth’ and wealth accumulation. A Green New Deal could help us build an economy based on justice for both people and planet.

Join us as we fight to put health before profit and build a grassroots movement for a just and ecological society.

Rob Abrams, Abi Deivanayagam, Sara el-Solh, Rhiannon Osborne and Amiteshwar Singh are health workers, researchers and organisers fighting for health and climate justice. They are all part of the Health for a Green New Deal campaign.

Images: Health for a Green New Deal unless stated otherwise.

Rob Abrams, Abi Deivanayagam, Sara el-Solh, Rhiannon Osborne, Amiteshwar Singh

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