Environmentalists watched as if in a trance,
The negotiations that happened in Paris, France.
But it was the same old show,
As they all want to “grow”,
And so there was no change in stance.
This limerick portrays a situation which some of us don’t want to witness in a few months’ time. As we embark on another World Environment Day celebration on 5th June, the year holds both hope and cynicism about the future of both global environment and health. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the climate change treaty will soon be upon us (2015), or so we hope at least – two exercises that have been and will be very resource intensive in their own way, but are nonetheless some of the acceptable ways we know of moving collectively towards solving matters of global significance. Sometimes these diplomatic ventures serve as a guiding light, but often they become excuses for real action. In a globalised world, it is unlikely that any country would take up altruistic measures to mitigate carbon emissions in the short term without a global agreement.
“Healthy People, Healthy Environment” was the theme of the 14th World Congress on Public Health (WCPH), held earlier this year in February in Kolkata, India. When I first read about this theme over a year ago, I felt that maybe it should have read as “Healthy Environment, Healthy People”. There is no way we can have healthy people without a healthy environment; it is a prerequisite to health. While the organisers themselves could have taken better care to appropriately manage waste, tackle mosquitoes and use and disposal of bottled water at the conference, it was great to have a platform to discuss issues on environmental health. The conference also had an unusual, and very interesting parallel session on planetary health, which differs from global health in its focus on ecology, sustainability and human health. At the WCPH, a few round table sessions were also organised on the theme of “Energy and Health”, where I served as a resource person.
As efforts are underway in India to rouse the health sector (especially the academic public health sector), there is an opportunity to integrate environmental health in a larger way. Generating sufficient energy is necessary for economic growth and also the health and well-being of people, but the approach to production, distribution and utilisation needs reflection. These are touchy times to be discussing energy generation and consumption in India. Lessons learnt from the past (industrialized nations) reiterate the need to achieve a balance between energy for economic growth and industrialization, and the need for energy which is sustainable, responsible and generated in a way in which it does not negatively impact people and the environment directly or indirectly. Yet, starting a conversation with those in power (pun intended) is a challenge. For all the discourse on equity, wellbeing, social determinants, human development, conservation, intergenerational equity and precautionary principle, the idea guiding decision-making on developmental issues still boils down to GDP. It is even more unfortunate that those with greater historical responsibility globally, have largely shied away from addressing the need for systemic change. It is quite easy to understand why developing countries are not taking the need to mitigate environmental damage seriously in the absence of the willingness of industrialized nations really showing they mean business. The ‘He Says, She Says’ and ‘You First’ attitudes, are tragic in a world that is not devoid of wisdom. Mixed feelings also emerge from the ongoing negotiations in Bonn about what might result from the Paris Conference of Parties (CoP). INDCs are all the rage now in climate talks, but the aggregated “sum of all INDCs” will probably not keep us within a 2 degrees rise, as things stand a few months before the Paris summit, which is why French officials are already saying we also have to think of a good process to review things and adjust, if necessary, in the years after Paris. That’s like saying to a high school student, well, “you didn’t pass this time, but hey, we’ll think of a nice mechanism to keep reviewing your score in the months to come, and then hopefully, some day, you’ll pass”. Go figure.
On a more serious note, there is, I believe, a need for more voices from the health sector to be heard at such conferences, in India and globally. A health sector response to the issues of energy, energy policy and climate change is necessary, and there is no better time for this. This sentiment was also recently echoed at the 68th World Health Assembly. Health professionals from all countries would do well to engage this year in shaping our collective future. The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has just divested from coal. Hopefully others will follow, and these messages are heard. Many members of the Emerging Voices community, including myself, are also passionately engaged with the health and environment community to discuss these issues. It’s now or never; this is the time for action, or we should forever hold our peace (pieces rather).