“Eviscerate it!” Laurie Garrett was at her most pugnacious.
She was speaking last week at the New York headquarters of the Rockefeller Foundation. Her subject was Planetary Health 2.0 and her target was the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), specifically its work on health. Yes, humans are of course sensitive to weather. Yes, existing health problems will get worse as the climate crisis gets worse. But she wasn’t buying the IPCC’s conclusion that “the present worldwide burden of ill health from climate change is relatively small compared with other stressors on health”.
The destruction of the natural environment was already having catastrophic consequences for human health. The fact is that our societies are already living at the limits of their tolerability to an eroded environment. The IPCC’s obsession with carbon dioxide, and its inability to persuade governments and the public to take more urgent action, reflected a massive failure of understanding and communication.
Andy Haines, who advised the IPCC on the health effects of climate change and who chaired The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on Planetary Health, forcefully disagreed. He charged Laurie Garrett with unfairness in her depiction of the IPCC’s work.
But what they both agreed on was that the present climate predicament facing our planet and its peoples was an emergency, and an insufficiently recognised one at that. Now we have an American President who is recommending dramatic cuts to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Something has gone badly wrong in our public discourse about the threat of climate change. The idea of planetary health—the health of human civilisations and the ecosystems on which they depend—was an opportunity to establish the gravity of the danger facing humanity.
Planetary health is a new field. Half of The Lancet’s Commission, together with a broader group of health, environmental, and earth scientists and policy makers, had gathered in New York to discuss the urgency of its development.
Zia Khan, a Vice President of the Rockefeller Foundation, called planetary health “the next frontier”. The Foundation sought to create a long-term movement for planetary health. He wanted to take advantage of “external stimuli” that were favourable to planetary health. He wished to build the knowledge base for planetary health.
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