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Planetary Health: It’s Global, but it’s Also Local

Chukwudi Onike — Former Senior Associate, Innovation, The Rockefeller Foundation

Green CityPlanetary health is a simple, but powerful concept: The health of human beings fundamentally depends on the health of ecosystems. The recent Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health assembled an overwhelming amount of evidence showing how the health of millions of people is being threatened by failing ecosystems.

Many of the ecosystem threats to human health are global and will require long-term, trans-boundary solutions, with climate change being the most prominent of those threats. However, when we conducted a survey of the research and action underway on planetary health, much of it coordinated by the Planetary Health Alliance and HEAL consortium, we found that much can be done locally and immediately to combat global threats to human health.

For example, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that rising global temperatures play a role in the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, dengue, and malaria. Higher temperatures expand mosquitoes’ populations and breeding ranges, and make it more probable that they will transmit disease from one person to the next.

There may be little a single city or state can do to stem global climate change in the short term. There are a number of measures, however, that can be taken to control local temperatures and fight the spread of mosquitoes by supporting healthy local ecosystems.

Preserving or re-establishing healthy forests and green cover can reduce local temperatures, slowing the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. Mosquitoes are also less likely to find breeding pools in healthy forests. While the link between disease and health is most critical where intact forests are being destroyed, green cover can be just as important in urban areas.

Unlike traditional public health measures such as spraying for mosquitoes, interventions inspired by planetary health often have multiple health benefits: Green spaces can not only combat mosquito-borne disease and heat-related deaths, but also improve water quality and provide important mental health benefits.

Putting ecosystems at the center of our understanding of human health thus offers a promising way forward on some of the toughest human health issues, whether the scale is global or local. It is worth noting though that the science behind planetary health is still being established, meaning that devising and testing ecosystems-based solutions at the local level, as a complement to traditional public health measures, will be critical to building the field.

This is not to say that the global view isn’t important, or that cities and states shouldn’t seek to take action beyond their borders. Singapore, for example, passed a law enabling the prosecution of companies and individuals creating smog by burning forests beyond its national borders. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership group, a network of cities from around the world committed to implementing meaningful climate-related solutions, has emerged as an important global voice on carbon emissions.

Planetary health is a concept that that can be put into effect now. The existing work of the Planetary Health Commission, HEAL, and Planetary Health Alliance is already pointing the way forward, and the case for action will only grow as the field develops.

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