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Climate Change and Planetary Health

Climate Change and Planetary Health

Organized by The Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, March 1, 2023

Written by Elaine Coburn, Director of the Centre for Feminist Research

The United Nations’ conference on climate change, the COP 27, held in Egypt in November 2022, was a massive failure. The Climate Finance Delivery Plan, established in 2009, for instance, promised 100 billion American dollars per year to support climate change mitigation and adaptation in the developing countries. This promise remains largely unfulfilled. This failure to come to a global agreement will have consequences for our planetary biosphere, and so for human health, argues the Director of the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, Professor James Orbinski.

There is already massive human suffering directly linked to ongoing failures to take up the climate change, which is the existential crisis of our times. Food security is a major crisis worldwide, Orbinski said, so that about 800 million people today are not able to meet their basic food needs. He noted that famine-like conditions exist in 43 countries today, directly caused or accelerated and exacerbated by global warming. For other forms of life, climate change is causing the sixth great extinction and this time, unlike the extinction that killed off the dinosaurs, the cause is not a meteorite hitting the earth, but global warming and ecological degradation, caused by human beings. 

Given the crisis, action is required. Locally, this demands responses that are community based and that take up the complexities of the ecosystem upon which all life, including human life, depends.

In the Chilwa Basin in Malawi, Orbinski’s team is taking an approach that seeks to engage the community and policy makers together. The aim is to produce research that can inform practices that will help local actors mitigate and adapt to the human health impacts climate change. This demands a careful understanding of the realities of a particular community, for instance, including gender dynamics and differences in health status across different age groups. Housing, fishing, animal husbandry, access to the water and the quality of water, and an appreciation of what is held sacred, Orbinski emphasized, all matter to creating meaningful models of complex local ecosystems.

Combining community knowledge with other sources of data from across different ministries, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), United Nations Agencies, and  satellite-based data, and across different disciplines, is another challenge. This is necessary for better understandings of local ecosystems, Orbinski argues, but there are political, logistical and technical solutions that have to be found to make that knowledge compatible, analyzable and then usable.

In the Chilwa Basin, one concern is that fuel needs are met through charcoal burning, which contributes to global warming and local deforestation. The deforestation then leads to soil erosion, which in turn, with its high nitrogen content, causes eutrophication of lake water, leading to the proliferation of disease-causing pathogens, making people sick. If alternative, nature-based, sustainable solutions to meeting fuel needs can be found, Orbinski observed, then local community health can be improved and climate change can to some extent, be mitigated. Creating effective and equitable solutions to these kinds of practical problems are at the heart of the institute's pragmatic approach to climate change and planetary health.

Another example of modelling climate change events in the Chilwa Basin is the successful development of models around flooding, Orbinski noted. For that project, the team used satellite data, and data from governments, community organizations, NGOs and others, to map and quantify relationships across a wide range of variables. Graphic representations of those relationships were then mapped onto the relationships of other sub-systems, enabling a new understanding of complex correlations across sub-systems. The aim is then to develop applications that can be used by local people and policy makers in health adaptations, early warning and disaster management.

In all cases, Orbinski emphasized, it is critical to recognize that how a given variable is valued depends on who is looking at it. A community actor may understand a piece of land as especially significant, while the same land may be seen as relatively unimportant by an engineer from outside the community seeking to modify a flood plain. When modelling outcomes or simulations, attentiveness to the community partner and to the range of values is important, if solutions are to be effective, equitable and politically acceptable.

There is a global governance process that includes the COP conferences, that aims to mitigate climate change. Those processes are failing, but must succeed if we are to take up climate change as the existential crisis of our times. But there are immediate, local needs that must be addressed, Orbinski remarked, since climate change is already here. These demand community-based local solutions that recognize the complexity of local, life sustaining ecosystems.

Ultimately, the solutions to climate change are not technical. For those of us who grew up with the Enlightenment narrative about human beings’ dominion over nature, Orbinski emphasized, we need a new story:

 “We need a new way of relating to each other and to our biosphere on which we depend, which is not extractive, which it is not about power over nature and power over others. Finding and creating that story is not declarative. Instead, it is a dialogical process that emerges across cultures, across communities, and across time, and it begins with looking to our responsibilities now and to future generations.”