Humans Can’t Be Healthy On A Sick Planet

I’ve been a pediatrician for over 30 years. I’ve cared for everything from tiny premature babies to teens with eating disorders. And still, the subtitle of the 2019 Lancet Countdown Report shocked “ensuring that the health of a child born today is not defined by a changing climate.”

That child could easily be my patient

Perhaps she is the critically ill newborn I spent nine hours with this past Wednesday [July 1]. Maybe he’s the chubby infant of a mom with diabetes. Or the tiny preemie born while I’m on call tomorrow.

Whatever the case, I’ll rush in to the hospital. I’ll do everything I can to make sure each new life gets off to the best possible start. And thankfully, I won’t be there on my own. I’m part of a team of health care workers who will rally around to help. And should things get too complicated, I can call up the NICU at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, and get advice or even transfer the baby for more intensive care.

When a newborn is sick, the health care system gears up. We want to ensure that the child born today has the very best chance of a happy and healthy life. It’s our job, and it’s our calling. But what of the months and years to come?

Humans Can’t be Healthy on a Sick Planet

Until recent decades, we’ve assumed that the planet will be there to support our health. We humans just need to figure out the social, political, and medical stuff. But as we push up against the boundaries of what the planet can sustain, and fill our atmosphere with pollution and greenhouse gases, the planet is starting to push back. And people are realizing that we can’t expect to be healthy when our planet is sick.

This Century’s Greatest Health Threat

Way back in 2009, the eminent medical journal The Lancet declared that “climate change is the 21st century’s greatest health threat.” And that’s still true despite the pandemic.

So what about that very sick infant I finally sent to Sick Kids on Wednesday evening? Will we rescue her from whatever ailment is immediately threatening her life only to send her into a world where a changing and unstable climate threatens her physical and mental health? Will she drown in a flood? Will her home and community burn to the ground in a wildfire, traumatizing her for life? Will air pollution cause or worsen her asthma? Will drought or pestilence drive her from her homeland? Will lack of clean water, food insecurity, and political instability, all likely outcomes of climate change, plague her life, limit her opportunities, or even kill her?

Health care workers around the world are beginning to face up to these questions. Many of them conclude that we have an ethical, even a moral responsibility, to help preserve the health of the planet. After all, the planet supports and sustains the health of our patients, the very people we labour to heal, from cradle to grave.


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