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The Climate Crisis: an Opportunity for Public Health and Creation Care

Day Zero. Cyclone Idai. Amazon Burning. Australian Wildfires. Arctic Meltdown. Greta Thunberg. Extinction Rebellion.

These are some of the recent climate-related events and role players that have thrust climate change into global public consciousness and led thousands to protest the vested political and economic interests that are driving climate change and delaying urgent climate action.

As a university lecturer in environmental health, I have been aware for the past decade that the climate crisis is both a huge threat  and a great opportunity for public health. Our health can be considered the “bottom line” of climate change: rapid climatic changes impact health via multiple environmental “pathways”, such as more frequent and prolonged heatwaves and droughts; more frequent extreme floods and tropical storms; continuing rises in sea level and ocean temperatures; and more frequent and intense wildfires. These extreme events impact health and societies directly (death, disease, disability and displacement by extreme weather events, for example) and indirectly, by affecting what people can eat, drink, and breathe and where they are forced to live, work and play. 

The massive injustice of global climate change is that those most vulnerable to its impacts (the poor; the homeless; the jobless; children; citizens of least  developed countries; refugees; the voiceless non-human species) are historically least responsible for what is driving it, which is the relentless and heedless exploitation of earth’s resources to feed our consumerist lifestyles. The vulnerable are at  greater risk as the earth becomes less able to support the aspirations of 7 billion plus people for the “good life”. 

South Africa is a particularly climate-vulnerable country, due to historic and massive inequality, poverty, and environmental damage from centuries of mineral, industrial and agricultural development with little regard for ecological and public health and our growing water scarcity. South Africa’s heavy dependence on coal as a primary energy source makes us one of the worst emitters of climate-warming gases per capita in the world, even though we possess  some of the best potential resources for renewable clean solar and wind energy.  

Yet acting to prevent climate change can have significant health and social benefits in both the shorter term,  by protecting and restoring the environment, and in the longer term, by preventing the dire impacts of runaway climate change on planet and people. Major “tipping points” towards a carbon-neutral society within the next 30 years include rapid reduction of emissions from fossil fuel-based energy generation, from domestic cooking and heating, from private transport, and from animal-intensive agriculture. Instead, a transition to renewable energy sources, to efficient public transport and active mobility (walking and cycling), and to more sustainable diets is urgently required. These transitions, if managed well and with due consideration for the most climate-vulnerable, can greatly improve global public health and mitigate the worst impacts of a changing climate. Furthermore, educating and adapting our societies to become more resilient to the unavoidable consequences of climate and environmental change  will enable people to better survive and thrive on a changing planet. 

Wise, ethical and inspiring leadership is required at such a time as this. This especially includes leaders in faith communities and the health professions, who are generally respected and trusted and have agency – the ability to make a difference and to inspire others too. So I try to teach and inspire my students about how they can respond to the climate crisis as concerned citizens, and as future health professionals. These actions may include sustainable choices about diet, water, energy, transport and consumer products; educating their patients and communities about healthy lifestyles; and using their voice to speak against environmental and climate destruction, and for more sustainable healthcare, food, transport, and energy systems.  

As a member of a local church community (Rosebank Methodist), and as a leader within a national and international Christian organisation in creation care, I believe that the gospel is good news for ALL creation. We are all called to care for the earth as an act of worship and witness to our Creator God, who gives us a future and a hope.

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James Irlam; jhirlam@gmail.com

James is a lecturer in the multi-disciplinary UCT Primary Health Care Directorate and is an associate of the Division of Environmental Health in the School of Public Health. He holds a MSc in Climate Change and Sustainable Development, and teaches climate change and health to postgraduate and undergraduate health science students. He is working to strengthen sustainable healthcare education within the Faculty of Health Sciences. 

James is Chair of the Climate Energy and Health interest group within the Public Health Association of South Africa that advocates for healthier national energy policies and strategies. He also chairs the Western Cape chapter of A Rocha South Africa (www.arocha.org.za), which promotes the Christian theology and practice of creation care. He would like to share his story with those who wish to know more about being creation stewards and “earthkeepers”.

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