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Australian network for planetary health / a healthy planet – a discussion paper

Peter Tait, Ecology and Environment SIG, Public Health Association of Australia

This paper continues discussion of an idea to set up in Australia a network, alliance or coalition for Planetary Health / a Healthy Planet, comprising major health organisations. Its aim is to focus more broadly on addressing the environmental determinants of health rather than a limited focus on global warming and climate change.

I am initiating this through the Public Health Association of Australia. The basis for it will be promotion of action to achieve the outcomes and vision of the Planetary Health Manifesto published last year in the Lancet. This is paralleling a movement in New Zealand that Robert Beaglehole is championing, discussed at the NZ 2014 Population Health Congress in Auckland. Since then, the Lancet Commission has published its report Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health, and the Rockefeller – Lancet Commission has launched a further report, Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch. Further the Canadian Public Health Association has released its report, Addressing the Ecological Determinants of Health: Global Change and Public Health, which includes an agenda for action for responding to, safeguarding and promoting planetary health.

The Planetary Health Manifesto describes its intent as: “to respond to the threats ... to human health and wellbeing, threats to the sustainability of our civilisation, and threats to the natural and human-made systems that support us. Our vision is for a planet that nourishes and sustains the diversity of life with which we coexist and on which we depend.

 

“Our objectives are to protect and promote health and wellbeing, to prevent disease and disability, to eliminate conditions that harm health and wellbeing, and to foster resilience and adaptation. In achieving these objectives, our actions must respond to the fragility of our planet and our obligation to safeguard the physical and human environments within which we exist” with a “focus on the collective actions of interdependent and empowered peoples and their communities.” The role of the “public health and medicine [professions in this is] as the independent conscience of planetary health.”

To achieve this, the authors propose “to create a movement for planetary health” based in “a new vision of cooperative and democratic action at all levels of society and a new principle of planetism and wellbeing for every person on this Earth—a principle that asserts that we must conserve, sustain, and make resilient the planetary and human systems on which health depends by giving priority to the wellbeing of all.”

The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on Planetary Health defined planetary health as:

“the achievement of the highest attainable standard of health, wellbeing, and equity worldwide through judicious attention to the human systems—political, economic, and social—that shape the future of humanity and the Earth’s natural systems that define the safe environmental limits within which humanity can flourish. Put simply, planetary health is the health of human civilisation and the state of the natural systems on which it depends”,

Or more simply: “planetary health is the health of human civilisation and the state of the natural systems on which it depends”.

Horton and Lo explain the concept of Planetary Health assists understanding because: “There are two dimensions that planetary health seeks to bring to human health. First, it situates human health within human systems. The threats that our species faces are not abstract physical risks ... [but] lie within ourselves and the societies we have created. ... Second, planetary health concerns the natural systems within which our species exists.” That is, it proposes without naming it, that we take a human ecological approach.

I envisage the role of an Australian network to incorporate three aspects:

  1. To be a vehicle for coordination and collaboration on activity to address the ecological and where relevant the related social determinants of health from a public health perspective
  2. To be clearing house for ideas and information, and
  3. To facilitate cooperative ventures in areas such as research, education and advocacy.

 

The coalition proposal parallels and complements other initiatives, such as Colin Butlers Health Earth Project , Future Earth and work of the Frank Fenner Foundation.

I propose that the network is not going to be an organisation in its own right, will not go for funding although it may coordinate funding proposals for members, but aims to coordinate activity, ideas, publicity and advocacy to promote a biosensitive society and broad ecological and social sustainability. There will be no paid staff.

 

To further planning in Australia, a workshop involving approximately 50 people was held at the Australian Population Health Congress in Hobart, on September 7th, 2015. The outcome of this workshop was ambivalent to the need for another organisation, but there was support for the Congress partner organisations to pursue the concept further.

Specifically from the small group discussion on an Australian Coalition for a Healthy Planet the following issues were raised:

  1. "Planetary health" suggests broad coalition reflecting breadth of issues in planetary health, beyond climate change which is current focus for some organisations
  2. Large numbers of organisations and structures already active in research, education, networking and advocacy in aspects of planetary health
  3. Need to differentiate role and work of this coalition from other organisations, coalitions and alliances
  4. Concern about financial and human resources required
  5. Question of whether coalition would focus on health sector, or action in broader community
  6. Question of the scale of the network: Australian or global
  7. Present discussion may be about establishing new coalition, or re-energising bodies that already exist
  8. To talk at this stage of a network rather than a “Coalition”

 

The workshop resolved to ask: "the Congress partner organisations to come together and work with other health organisations to explore the establishment and running of an Australian network for planetary health." The Congress has included the workshop resolution in its Declaration (highlighted sections):

3. Grand challenges and wicked problems: planetary health and climate change, and economics, trade agreements and global health

Global warming and climate change together with local and global threats to ecosystems - progressing the recommendations of the Lancet Commission on Climate and Health could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century; continue involvement in CAHA and explore the need for and usefulness of an Australian network for planetary health.

From here and now, my aim is to further the discussion about the need for this network. I will aim to have the PHAA coordinate a meeting of relevant members of the four Congress Partner organisations, along with other health organisations who indicated interest. These included Doctors for the Environment Australia, The Climate and Health Alliance and the Frank Fenner Foundation.