After a summer of wildfires in Southern Europe and the Western United States, we now watch floodwaters in Texas and India recede and powerful winds in the Caribbean and Southeastern United States die down. As the 72nd UN General Assembly and Climate Week NYC convene, we can’t help but reflect on the timeliness and poignancy of their themes of prosperous people and a sustainable planet.
While some may argue that these are “natural” disasters, there is increasing consensus that rising temperatures, caused by human activity, are contributing to the number and intensity of these events.
And one only needs to look back at the past few weeks to see the tangible and devastating economic, environmental and health effects of natural disasters. Hurricane Harvey and Irma are just two recent climate events that underscore the urgent need for climate action and the incredible economic costs that drag on future prosperity—Hurricane Irma could cost as much as $300 billion while estimates for Harvey range from $70 to $108 billion.
As international leaders across sectors convene at Climate Week NYC 2017 to discuss policies to drive global climate action, we urge them to also consider the critical links between global environmental change and health—both short- and long-term.
In the immediate term, floodwater deaths and injuries, infectious diseases, power outages and reduced access to medicines are only a fraction of potential health threats resulting from major natural disasters.
But, climate events can also have much longer-term impact on health and wellbeing, and therefore, economies, livelihoods and individual lives.
- Flood-affected areas can experience higher mortality rates for months and also experience heightened rates of chronic illness for decades; for example, the mortality rate in New Orleans was 47 percent above normal up to 10 months after Hurricane Katrina.
- Natural disasters also can impact infants and children; pregnant women’s exposure to wildfire emissions, regardless of the trimester of exposure, resulted in lower birth weight among infants compared with unexposed infants.
- Experiencing a major natural disaster such as Harvey or Irma also may intensify existing mental health conditions or contribute to new mental health problems. Studies showed that after Hurricane Katrina, 30% to 50% of all survivors suffered from PTSD. In the case of Hurricane Sandy, over 20% of residents reported PTSD, 33% reported depression, and 46% reported anxiety.
We must go beyond reflection and conversation, driving concrete policy change that promotes human health and prosperity while preserving the environment that allows us to thrive. That’s why, at The Rockefeller Foundation, we’re working with a host of organizations to advance the multidisciplinary field of planetary health.
Planetary health recognizes that the health and wellbeing of humanity are inextricably tied to the health of earth’s natural systems, which provide us with sustenance, shelter and energy. The Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health at the Oxford Martin School is focusing on the economic case for planetary health. We hope these data will help urge leaders across sectors to generate new knowledge and enact policies that promote economic development while protecting human health and our planet.
If we are to achieve sustainable development and a prosperous future, we must adopt a planetary health lens. The health of humanity depends on the health of our planet. Our future depends on strengthening both.