Untangling the climate change web we weave

Have you ever heard of planetary health? I hadn’t before I started writing reports on the issue. The official definition is that planetary health is a multi-disciplinary approach to understand natural and human environments as one connected system.

Got it yet? No? Well, I find it tricky to explain, but the secretariat of the The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health at the Oxford Martin School are doing a great job working out what planetary health means for you and me. In the process of working this out, the team has come up with some examples of planetary health issues to help academics, decision-makers and policy-makers catch the vision for this multi-disciplinary approach.

This is where these reports come in (written with Anitha Devadason from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in the US). We have co-written two reports that try to navigate two complicated systems that are themselves interconnected with each other.

The first report, led by Anitha, focuses upon the impacts of climate change and associated sea-level rise on human health and livelihoods in small island states, particularly in the Pacific (where Anitha spent time working for the World Health Organisation in Fiji). The report shows that climate change is a present-day threat to key sources of government revenue, especially fishing, and that economic livelihoods in Pacific Island Countries that are at risk from limited adaptation capacity. One stark issue discussed is the currently limited rights of individuals forced to migrate due to climate change.

The second report (led by me) considers the train of events — both human and natural — that lead to risks of mental health problems caused by coastal flooding. As a climate scientist, it was fascinating to explore the research done on mental health, and the report attempts to draw this storyline into something that could be tested to see if, one, we could measure the impact of increasing coastal flooding due to sea-level rise on mental health problems over the 20th century, and two, consider how mental health problems might change in the future due to enhanced climate change.

One topical message that comes out is that rapidly cutting our carbon emissions will slow the current rate of sea-level rise, giving us a bit more time to develop ways of better protecting our coastlines (though retreat should be a genuine option on any decision-makers table if a coastline is eroding fast), which in turn will help limit flood-induced mental health problems.

This pair of reports, as with others published by the Economic Council, tackle one to two strands of this complex and interconnected world we live in, in terms of our planetary health.

By Luke Jackson, Research Fellow at Climate Econometrics, Nuffield College

This blog was also published on the Climate Econometrics website.