Why do policymakers need to engage with the emerging field of planetary health? What can be done to advance its global vision? These questions and more were addressed at the symposium by Klaus Töpfer (former Federal Minister for the Environment and a founding director of the IASS), Nicole de Paula (Klaus Töpfer Sustainability Fellow at the IASS and former Executive Director of the Global Health Asia Institute), Sabine Gabrysch (Professor for Climate Change and Health at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and Head of Climate Resilience at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK)) and Mark Lawrence (IASS Scientific Director).
Cooperation crucial to planetary and human health
In her keynote speech Nicole de Paula presented an overview of the most pressing environmental challenges and their impacts on people. As diverse as these challenges may be, de Paula argued, addressing them requires us to tread new ground by developing the knowledge that we need in co-creative processes – at all levels. In her work at the Global Health Asia Institute, the political scientist has gained first-hand experience of the benefits of involving local communities in decision-making around environmental and health issues. The ability of individual regions to address global challenges such as the spread of infectious diseases, the extinction crisis and marine pollution is limited, however, and international cooperation is required to address challenges on this scale.
But nationalist tendencies – as evidenced by Brexit, the US' withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and recent election results in Germany – are putting a damper on these efforts, said Klaus Töpfer: "We have a huge crisis of multilateralism at a time when we need multilateralism more than ever." Resolving the major challenges of our time will require a global perspective. In many countries, for example, water scarcity places constraints on the kinds of renewable energy technologies that can be utilized. Future research must take such aspects into account.
Humans and nature as one
According to Sabine Gabrysch, health professionals are gradually coming around to the idea that medical care alone is not enough: "Humans are one part of a very big symphony of life on this planet. We are totally dependent on all the other parts." In order to prepare people for the impacts of climate change, health professionals will need to cooperate with engineers, agronomists, veterinarians and geologists, she suggested, noting that the many benefits brought about by environmentally conscious action could help to drive change. "If we protect the environment, we also protect ourselves."
Mark Lawrence illustrated the connection between human and planetary health using air pollution as an example: Air pollutants such as black carbon not only cause health problems, they are also significant drivers of climate change. Reducing air pollutant emissions has a twofold effect. Public awareness is a decisive factor in pushing politicians to address air pollution, Lawrence believes. In London, which is one of the worst affected cities in Europe, public pressure recently compelled the authorities to raise the congestion charge in order to reduce traffic in the inner city. In other cities, where residents are still willing to tolerate heavy traffic flows, the authorities are yet to act to curb air pollution.
Learning from our predecessors
The panel members also emphasized the importance of traditional knowledge in these times. "The wisdom of our predecessors is more or less gone, and needs to be revitalized to some extent", said Klaus Töpfer. Even if it lacks a scientific basis, traditional knowledge must be taken seriously. Nicole de Paula added that scientists and politicians can learn a lot from indigenous communities. "Western thinking" is focussed too strongly on the individual – our concern for the common good must be strengthened if we wish to safeguard the health of our planet.