EHPs have the 'implicit understanding' to tackle climate change

16 May 2019, Katie Coyne

A factory with steam and smoke rising from towers and chimneys

Climate change is the greatest environmental health challenge since the Broad Street pump and EH professionals have a unique opportunity to tackle the threat, according to CIEH.

At the start of the month a report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services raised the alarm that the rate of species extinctions is accelerating at an unprecedented rate. The $5 million (£3.9 million) report warned of ‘grave impacts’ on humanity through the erosion of the foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. It argued that action was needed now at every level from local to global to avert disaster.

This was followed by a report by the Centre for International Environmental Law and other co-authors that estimated the impact of plastics production on climate change for the first time. The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet report found that by 2050, plastic will be responsible for creating up to 13% of the total carbon budget, which is equivalent to 615 coal power plants.

According to Gary McFarlane, CIEH director for Northern Ireland and climate change lead, EHPs are well positioned to make a difference.

McFarlane said: “Climate change is our 21st-century Broad Street pump” (the source of the cholera outbreak in London in 1854, which led to the foundation of the environmental health profession).

“It is our environment that sustains and protects our lives. Pollute, degrade and destroy that at our peril – yet that is precisely what, as a species, we are doing because we have largely lost that basic understanding.”

McFarlane added: “EH professionals have a real opportunity to contribute to tackling climate change, particularly through their engagement with businesses and communities.

“EHPs tend to have an implicit understanding of the threats climate change poses because, due to their work and training, they are able to join the dots and see the bigger picture.

“Obviously we know all about the obvious impact of environmental events such as flooding and the damage to structures and injury and loss of life following such events. But there are other threats.

“We also need to think about climate change in terms of risk to food supply, and the threat posed by changes and potential proliferation of disease vectors due to changing climate.”

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