What is the link between planetary health and humanitarian action?


In the first half of 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its 6th Assessment Report, which includes unequivocal scientific evidence of how climate change and biodiversity loss caused by human activities are concrete threats to human well-being and the health of the planet. The very concept of “Planetary Health” was introduced in 2015 by the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health to “characterise the linkages between human-caused disruptions of earth’s natural systems and the resulting impacts on global health”. We had the opportunity to discuss the link between planetary health and humanitarian action with Dr Anne Golaz, Director of our Planetary Health online course.

What is the rationale behind this course designed for humanitarian professionals?

Planetary health recognises that human health and the health of our planet are inextricably interconnected. Humanitarian professionals can no longer ignore the effects of human-made changes on our planet and their impacts on humans, animals, plants, and ecosystems. Every day they see the consequences of these changes in their work areas. They see first-hand how populations are affected by the consequences of climate change, loss of biodiversity, and environmental degradation. Humanitarian actors must integrate the environment into all programmes, research, and policies to anticipate, prevent, mitigate, and adapt their responses to crises.

We can somehow measure some of the more direct effects of climate change on humanitarian crises, such as displacement caused by sudden-onset disasters. Which other, less evident, effects will you cover during your course?

It is easier to see the immediate impact of a sudden-onset extreme weather event, such as flooding, than the long-term impact caused by biodiversity collapse. The course will review how human-caused changes disrupt natural ecosystems, causing climate change, air and water pollution, drought and desertification, disruption to our food production system, changing patterns of diseases, and biodiversity loss.

Can you give us an overview of the environmental dimensions of conflicts?

In addition to the human cost of conflict, the environment is the primary casualty of war, and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) will address the topic in the course. Direct environmental impacts include landmines and unexploded ordinances in productive areas, scorched earth tactics targeting natural resources, and toxic hazards from bombing industrial infrastructure. Indirect impacts include the breakdown of institutions or displacement-related coping strategies causing deforestation when displaced populations need to find new sources of firewood. At the same time, natural resource scarcity and competition can lead to conflict. Lack of access or use of land has played a key role in triggering conflicts across the globe.
Moreover, countries affected by conflicts are more vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation because the capacity of people and systems to cope with additional climate-related issues becomes limited. The combination of conflicts and environmental changes makes adapting to these complex situations more challenging.
To offer a timely example, Ukraine’s war has had catastrophic environmental costs. It has blasted forests, introduced toxins into the soil, and started toxic fires in chemical plants. When the war ends, it is crucial to include rehabilitation and protection of ecosystems in recovery plans.

Deforestation in Tasmania. Photo credit: Matt Palmer on Unsplash

Beyond climate change, which other human impacts threaten the Earth’s natural systems, and how are they impacting people’s health and well-being?

Environmental degradation, such as deforestation and other ecosystem degradation leading to biodiversity loss and air and water pollution, all triggered by human activities, are having a massive impact on Earth’s natural systems. Sudden extreme weather events have an immediate visible impact and are better recognised as climate-related events, but long-term events such as rising sea levels, desertification and drought, and biodiversity loss are less visible.

What’s the link between planetary health and humanitarian action?

Planetary health focuses on the changes humans make to their environment and its multidimensional impacts on ecosystems and human health, leading to planetary crises. This course aims to understand how essential it is to integrate a planetary health lens and strategy into humanitarian action. Humanitarian workers see first-hand how climate change and environmental degradation impacts populations across the globe, often exacerbating humanitarian crises, and how often it’s the most vulnerable countries and vulnerable populations who are affected.

How are humanitarian actors addressing this challenge?

Humanitarian organisations must address environmental degradation through the operational adaptation of their programmes and policies. At the same time, they also must limit their ecological footprint. The programme emphasises the importance of humanitarian organisations reaching out to help people at risk while simultaneously working to reduce the environmental impact of their aid efforts.

Which organisations will provide their expertise during your course?

Our guest lecturers are environmental and humanitarian experts from different organisations, such as MSF, UNEP, IOM, IFRC, ICRC, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, UN biodiversity, working in the field, addressing the impacts climate change and biodiversity loss have on the health and well-being of affected populations.

Who is this course for?

This course is designed for all humanitarian workers who have at least three years of field experience and are interested in understanding and addressing the impacts of global environmental changes through their organisations. They have a pivotal role in addressing environmental challenges because they work in fragile settings and in countries most impacted by environmental changes.

Dr Anne Golaz has over 20 years of field experience in humanitarian work and graduate and post-graduate education in public health. She has worked as a medical epidemiologist for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as a senior advisor for UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia in Kathmandu and Geneva Office, and for WHO HQ and Regional Offices in Cairo and New Dehli. The first edition of her course, “Planetary Health”, will be online from 3 to 14 October 2022. For more information and to apply, visit this page.