This blog was co-authored by the leaders of the Faculty of Public Health and the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change.

Climate change and ecological degradation are the biggest threats to global public health this century and will not be suppressed until urgent action is taken.

The environmental and ecological breakdown we are currently experiencing has severe impacts for human health.  Climate change is the biggest health emergency of the 21st century. 

Human activity is changing our planet’s biosphere, bringing disruption to planetary health through climate change, air pollution, ocean acidification, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity. We live in an interdependent world, and public health specialists understand the links between the crises in health, ecology, and climate. 

Zoonotic transmission of viruses from animals to humans represents just one example of how harm to the natural world is impacting on human health, and these harms are not experienced equally. As demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, deprived communities suffering from issues such as overcrowded housing have suffered far worse than affluent communities.

Governments around our globe must prioritise the health of our planet to protect human health and provide better health for all. We must aim for the world to stay below a temperature increase of 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels to avoid severe damage to health. Achieving the necessary cuts in carbon emissions will be a major challenge. Success will depend on high-income countries like Britain making bigger cuts to our carbon consumption and supporting poorer countries financially and technically to achieve net-zero.

The Faculty of Public Health (FPH) understands the urgency of climate change, which is why we declared a Climate Emergency in November 2019. The declaration solidifies our commitment to call upon governments to take urgent action on climate change to tackle this great threat to human health.

FPH recognises that the Climate Emergency cannot be tackled in isolation, and we continue our work with partners in public health and beyond to place health and social inequalities at the heart of climate change work. For example, FPH, along with over 350 other health organisations have advocated for a #HealthyRecovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and supported a letter sent to G20 leaders advocating for them to positively impact upon this objective. 

Furthermore, we also collaborated with the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC) to send a letter to the Prime Minister calling for the recovery from COVID-19 to prioritise the health of people and the planet. We have also supported the Alliance’s Call to Action. 

In September 2020, our Climate and Health Committee held their inaugural meeting, with initial work focusing on what our PH members need to do now to address climate and health , the importance of the NHS Net Zero proposals, the build up to COP 26, and developing a FPH Climate and Health Strategy, due to be considered at our upcoming event, ‘What is Public Health’s role in tackling the Climate Emergency?’. The voice of the next generation of public health leaders is key to our work and we have involved many specialist registrars to help develop the Faculty’s approach.

We have also been active in publishing statements on key climate events such as the Leaders’ Summit on Climate held in April 2021. We advocated for health and equity to be at the heart of the UK’s climate policy and continue to see COVID-19 recovery as an opportunity for international leaders to commit to ambitious emissions reductions targets, aligned with the Paris Agreement.

Furthermore, FPH have divested from fossil fuels, a move that strengthened our commitment to action on climate change and ecological degradation in order to protect public and planetary health.

Looking forward, we will continue our work in striving towards a greener, healthier future for all. This year will be another critical year in demonstrating our commitment to change, and we are delighted by Greta Thunberg’s recent acceptance of Honorary Membership of the Faculty of Public Health.

Each year, FPH celebrate a Fellow of the Faculty who has translated high-level public health research into practice through our Bazalgette Award. This year, the prize was awarded to Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, for his work on air quality and its impacts on human health. Sir Stephen’s lecture, entitled ‘Everyone has a right to breathe clean air as they do to drink clean water’, is available to watch online here. Air quality is one element of environmental health closely aligned to fossil fuel and climate change. 

The global climate crisis cannot be tackled alone, and requires persistent collaboration with individuals, organisations, and governments alike. We will continue to partner with organisations such as UKHACC to lobby for urgent action to protect planetary, and thus human, health.

Professor Maggie Rae
President, Faculty of Public Health (FPH)

Professor Sue Atkinson CBE
Chair, FPH Climate and Health Committee

Dr Richard Smith
Chair, UK Health Alliance on Climate Change

Cover image used under license: CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2020 – Source: EP.