Published 1 July 2023 by Benjamin Skuse

Taking Action on Global Health Consequences of Climate Change

The panel of the #LINO23 final discussion

We are all acutely aware of the impact climate change can have (and is having) on the health of our global population. Extreme weather increases heat; and cold-related illness and deaths, and leads to more frequent and intense natural disasters, like hurricanes, floods, wildfires and storms. Air pollution causes respiratory problems. And knock-on disruptions to water supplies and agricultural systems contribute to food insecurity, malnutrition and outbreaks of various diseases. What’s worse is that these impacts disproportionately affect the most vulnerable members of society – the elderly, the young, people with pre-existing health conditions, and communities in developing countries most lacking the resources needed to respond these threats.

The question of how science and scientists should respond to this global societal challenge dominated two #LINO23 sessions this year: the Agora Talk Why Europe Should Embrace GMOs on Tuesday, 27 June, and the final Panel Discussion of the meeting Climate Change and Implications on Health held on Friday, 30 June.

Future of Food

Sir Richard J. Roberts;
Sir Richard J. Roberts with moderator Adam Smith

The former talk was a straightup argument from Sir Richard Roberts (1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine) for Europe to embrace genetically modified crops now in order to feed a growing global population on a warming Earth. Roberts is passionate about this topic, having organised a campaign with fellow Nobel Laureates to influence the debate, which now has 161 signatories.

“In Europe, you’re not allowed to buy GMO food, you can’t grow GMO foods (with the exception of, I think, Spain and maybe Portugal), but the animals in Europe are fed millions of tonnes of GMO soybean,” he explained. “Apparently GMOs are perfectly safe for animals but deadly for people – and I find this hypocrisy to be just too much.”

Roberts contends that the science says GMOs are safe, but political and financial vested interests continue to fuel a pan-European anti-GMO movement that bars the planting of GMO crops. Not only does he argue that this is deleterious to Europe – where, for example, the effects of climate change have seen Taittinger Champagne planting vineyards in the UK – but it is also a critical roadblock to the rest of the world embracing GMOs. According to Roberts, African countries, for example, are reticent to grow GMOs for fear that Europe will end trade with them.

His argument concluded with a call to arms for the Young Scientists in the room to support GMOs. “There are 800 million people who go to bed hungry every night, and that can be solved,” he said. “The future of the world is in your hands – you have a wonderful model in Greta Thunberg who showed you what young people can do if you become active, so become active.”

Societal Takeaways From #LINO23

Three days later, on the idyllic Mainau Island, moderator Adam Smith and panellists Peter Agre (2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry), Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum (World Health Organization; WHO), epidemiological researcher Joacim Rocklöv (Heidelberg University), and Young Scientists Leonard Schmitt (Technical University of Munich; TUM), Jana Sanne Huisman (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA) and Antonia Morita Saktiawati (Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia) picked up the baton from Roberts.

As Countess Bettina Bernadotte explained as she welcomed attendees, the final panel session of the week is a chance to “discuss things that are very relevant to society, very directly”. As such, it often becomes a forum to voice a wide range of challenges and opinions on issues that cut across divides, though the roughly 90-minute time limit makes delving into solutions these challenges in depth near impossible.

That is why this year, many young scientists met the day before to hash out six important topics related to climate change and its implications for health for discussion during the Panel. Campbell-Lendrum – who leads the WHO Climate change and health team, which monitors and reviews countries’ preparedness, and supports and builds capacity to protect human health from climate change – took a familiar role as observer. “Within about 20 minutes, this group of Young Scientists … had basically scoped out the agenda that some of us have been building up over a period of 20 years,” he enthused. “It was encouraging, not just because of the brilliant minds, but also because it confirms the consensus of what needs to be done in this area.”

Whittled down from a long list, the six topics chosen were:

  • The importance of talking about direct and indirect consequences of climate change on health
  • Ensuring preparedness for future pandemics
  • Interdisciplinary collaboration to attain optimal health for the environment, animals and humanity
  • Actions to make our laboratories, hospitals and science in general more sustainable
  • Improving trust in science and influencing policymakers to implement changes needed to prevent climate change
  • Taking steps to ensure society capitalises on the opportunities and removes the risks of utilising AI to address climate change and health.

Each panellist provided thoughtful contributions. In particular, the Young Scientists displayed both passion and refreshing perspectives throughout. Schmitt, for example, is a medical doctoral candidate, and one of seven TUM students involved in the electrum project, aiming to develop a model that calculates a university and its students’ energy consumption, and provide suggestions for improvements. He emphasised the need to educate all young people on how climate change will impact or is impacting their fields, particularly those in health-related disciplines. “Given that climate change is the biggest health threat to humanity, you would think that that should be part of the curriculum, right? I haven’t had a single lecture on it,” he said.

Antonia Morita Saktiawati
Antonia Morita Saktiawati

Saktiawati highlighted how we can no longer think of a global North–South divide when it comes to public health in light of both COVID-19 and how climate change is shifting where diseases like malaria and dengue, for example, thrive. “As long as there is still infection in the global South, it can come to the global North – no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

Jana Sanne Huisman
Jana Sanne Huisman

Huisman extended this argument into the political sphere, arguing for better political engagement from scientists on societal issues connected with climate change and health. “What can we do to convince our politicians right now?” she asked. “Part of that should be making the arguments of how our actions have a global reach, but sometimes saying ‘what you think is a far-away problem is actually a problem right at home’ might be the more convincing communication strategy.“

The more established panellists also had a lot to say. Agre has been active in communicating and exploring solutions to the climate crisis in terms of public health and equity, as both an Advisory Board member of the Climate Grand Challenge and Director of the Malarial Research Institute at Johns Hopkins University. When asked about how to build trust in science on climate change and its impact on health, he had sage advice: “We have to be convincing and… we should look for language that’s not inflammatory”. He touted Al Gore’s unsuccessful run for US President in 2000 as the perfect example of how not to do it: “He was discussing climate change in a snowstorm, and talking about gun control in West Virginia – you have to win the election before you make the policy changes.”

Campbell-Lendrum had more to add on this topic. “Positive framing of the health and environmental benefits of climate action elicits the most support across boundaries,” he explained, before playfully adding: “And that’s been tested in quite a few countries – the only exception is Germany.”

Leonard Schmitt
Leonard Schmitt

Rocklöv – who conducts epidemiological research with strong links to the environment, ecology and climate change by applying mathematical, statistical and AI methods – was more specific in his answer. “Another thing that is really promising and important is to engage normal people because it increases awareness and support for policies,” he said. “One example is the citizen science project Mosquito Alert, where people detect the emergence of new mosquito species in Spain and other places as well.”

Though many of the topics, arguments and examples will have been familiar to attendees, the sense at the end of the discussion was that they were leaving with a renewed determination to play their part. In the words of Schmitt: “We know the solution, we just need to implement it.”

Benjamin Skuse

Benjamin Skuse is a professional freelance writer of all things science. In a previous life, he was an academic, earning a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Edinburgh and MSc in Science Communication. Now based in the West Country, UK, he aims to craft understandable, absorbing and persuasive narratives for all audiences – no matter how complex the subject matter. His work has appeared in New Scientist, Sky & Telescope, BBC Sky at Night Magazine, Physics World and many more.