Healing Planet Earth
Extraordinarily well-timed, the upcoming launch of the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health aims to break down the silos between health, crises, and economy, and to issue and support an urgent clear and simple call for action on planetary health.
Since Governments – through agreement on the 2015 Paris climate accord – imposed a deadline for limiting temperature increase to below 1.5 degrees celsius, there has been some movement in the right direction. Although if we continue at the current level of effort, we will miss this 1.5-degree limit by almost another 1.5 degrees by the end of this century. And so Gretha Thunberg’s words resonate strongly – our house IS on fire.
But there is also some hope. We have seen proposals such as the Green New Deal in the USA. Grassroot movements are increasingly emerging on campuses and in communities around the globe like Fridays for Future, the school protest. More business leaders are beginning to see the necessity to make urgent progress on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues as consumers start to look more carefully at how their purchases impact the planet. And more broadly, citizens are starting to connect the dots between their choices and actions and the impact these are having on their environment and, now ever more starkly, on the planet.
The Asian Green Wave
“COVID-19 is a dress rehearsal for entrepreneurial engagement on climate change,” said Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah Mahmood during her keynote address at the JC3 Flagship Conference 2021 (#FinanceForChange) organised by Bank Negara in June. “We are now very afraid of COVID-19’s health impacts and its economic consequences. While that is a valid concern, climate change – a longer lasting, human induced more fundamental planetary disease – is already saddling us not just with debt, but with a lot of economic consequences that are starting to disrupt our societies; something that will only increase if we continue as we are. As we try to flatten the curve of COVID-19, we also need to flatten the curve of our ecological footprint.”
We have many reasons to be alarmed. Our region lies at the heart of planetary health. Our tropical geography and population density is the ideal hotbed for infectious disease outbreaks. It is only a matter of time until the next epidemic erupts in the cross-over between ourselves and animals, forced to live in ever-closer proximity as our appetite for them increases and their natural habitat is destroyed…by us. Changing global weather patterns, driven by meteorological phenomena in our region, are already affecting our environment and our social, economic and political systems and are also having the same or worse effects across the planet.
Pioneering the application of the planetary health approach, which is the achievement of the highest attainable standard of health, wellbeing, and equity worldwide through judicious attention to political, economic and social systems is what Dr. Jemilah hopes to catalyse for Malaysia and for this region. She is a medical professional with extensive experience in managing humanitarian crises and has been a long-standing advocate for addressing the root drivers of crises; in medical terms treating the cause, rather than the symptoms. For Dr. Jemilah, planetary health is a systematic way of joining up the dots and helping humanity identify potential solutions. But translating ambition into action at such a scale is a tall order. She is placing her bet on the newly established Sunway Centre for Planetary Health.
In many ways, Sunway has already taken the first steps. Dr. Jemilah was attracted by the conglomerate’s ecological ethos which acknowledges the logical connection between the planet’s health and our health: no matter how technologically advanced we become there is no way to break the link in our relationship with Mother Earth – healthy planet, healthy people. The Sunway Centre for Planetary Health, which will be led by Dr. Jemilah, will be “a space for advancing knowledge about planetary health, translating academic discourse into accessible and actionable steps and concepts, facilitating learning and creating solutions with a broad range of partners to achieve durable systemic change”. The Centre is a demonstration of Sunway’s commitment to sustainability and its expanding engagement on this most important of topics.
An All-of-Society Approach
There is now a very real danger that we might well be reaching the endgame of the climate crisis – an endgame which has been long predicted, but which is still at least partially avoidable. Just last June, the world set yet another high mark for carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere: 419 parts per million, higher than it has been in 20,000 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany, which have some of the oldest weather records, all hit new high temperatures this summer and July was just confirmed as the hottest month since records began. The poles are melting. Antarctica, famed for its glaciers, and the world’s coldest and most enigmatic continent, is losing ice due to heating six times faster than it did 40 years ago, and in larger chunks too. We have entered an era of flash floods, drought, heat waves, wildfire damage, sea-level rise, coastal dissolution, and permafrost thaw. Our region is a hotspot for many of these planetary health problems.
And yet, despite all the warnings, even though climate change impacts are visible all around us every evening as we turn on our televisions and watch the news, we have done remarkably little, as individuals, as nations, as corporations to respond. Our leaders are not held to account by their electorates – carbon neutrality by 2050 is simply 20 years too late. Instead, we bury ourselves in Instagram’s delights or the latest that Netflix has to offer. We are alone and seemingly increasingly powerless in a sea of connections.
But are we? Dr. Jemilah believes in an all-of-government and all-of-society approach to climate risk. More than engaging in international conversations that wax poetic about planetary health, she is passionate about getting on the ground to mobilise and facilitate development of the moral, political and legislative power necessary to fundamentally transform the approach to addressing the climate change threats that are now beating down our door. That means supporting decision-making processes that broker and facilitate constructive interaction between the academics and policy-making institutions. It means reaching beyond the usual crowd to the people who do not already speak the same language, nor eat, sleep, and breathe planetary health values and principles and informing them of their freedom to shape and determine the future of our planet. It means disrupting and harnessing the power of the internet for positive change.
As Dr. Jemilah insists: “This is a call for all of us.” It is time for humans to stop ignoring or, at best, lamenting the loss of earthly life – and this special blend of planetary destruction we have brewed – from an emotional distance. Because the poor health of the planet can only recover in one of two ways – with us, or without us. And the plans that the Centre for Planetary Health are making to address such a challenge may offer the best chance we might ever get to win this one battle that we cannot lose. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has told us very starkly – we are living in an era of Code Red for Humanity. It’s past time to act.
This article first appeared in Berita Sunway Issue 73