Researchers need to reach out to other disciplines to face up to the challenges of climate change

Graphic showing current links between disciplines
Figure 1. The current connections of disciplines that researchers are working across to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The thicker the line between disciplines means that more survey respondents are working within that connection.

Healthy People, Healthy Planet is a challenge team formed by students from the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) Doctoral Training Partnership.  Team members, Hiral Shah, Rebecca Thomas, Jonathan Bosch, Branwen Snelling and Rowan Schley, discuss why climate change and global health go hand in hand.

 Tackling climate change could be the biggest global health opportunity of the twenty first century.” This message, published in top medical journal The Lancet in 2015, embodies the emerging notion of planetary health – that we can only find solutions to global challenges by understanding how human and environmental systems are interconnected. But how do we do that?

We were interested in finding out. So, at a recent event hosted by The Lancet Countdown in association with the Grantham Institute, where world renowned experts convened for a panel discussion on how global tracking initiatives can help tackle issues around health and climate change, we conducted a simple poll.

We asked the audience about the cross-discipline collaborations they had already forged, and those they thought they needed to face up to the challenge that climate change presents to human health.

The results from the survey showed that the majority of participants reported that they had already established strong connections across some disciplines, such as energy with economics and business; or medicine and health with ecology, biodiversity or biology (Figure 1). However, many of these existing connections remain relatively weak and participants reported wanting to engage with people from much more diverse disciplines (Figure 2).

Graphic showing desired links between disciplines
Figure 2. The future connections of disciplines that respondent would like to start working across to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The thicker the line between disciplines means that more survey respondents are working within that connection.

Re-framing the question

Take the energy crisis as an example of a problem that affects climate change and health. There is a growing demand for affordable and equitable energy in the world. However, there is a risk that rapidly growing economies could choose to use cheap and readily available coal power to connect millions of their citizens to the electricity grid. While affordable energy access is critical, burning fossil fuels would both contribute to climate change and negatively impact human health – energy generation is already the biggest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, and 6.5 million deaths every year are attributed to industrial pollutants.

As such, to make energy affordable, equitable and safe for people and the planet, it is essential to understand the local energy markets and the energy needs of the population, alongside the impact of energy access on the environment and on human health.

This is an example of what is called systems thinking, whereby you can only understand a system by examining the interactions between every component within it. This approach is key to tackling climate change and a central tenet of the planetary health paradigm. Researchers, governments, NGOs and the private sector all need to collaborate and consider how varying disciplines, ranging from engineering to medicine, politics to physics are interconnected.

And our respondents seem to agree. If researchers across the globe – regardless of their links to climate change – can frame their work using this approach, then there is a major potential to generate innovative multidisciplinary networks that could lead to major breakthroughs in solving global issues such as the impacts of climate change on human health.

However, as the survey showed, although there is real progress and intent to generate new connections across disciplines, it’s clear that we need to do more to actually create those connections. If all researchers better understood the potential impact of their research for the planet, we could be taking giant leaps forward in mitigating climate change and improving health.

Healthy People, Healthy Planet

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