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Sir Andrew Haines, Professor of Environmental Change and Public Health, Delivers Public Lecture on “Climate Action for Health”

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An urgent call for Climate Action to preserve Human Health

On Wednesday, 8th of September 2021, The Cyprus Institute and the British High Commission organized the online public lecture entitled “Climate Action for Health”, as part of the Ronald Ross Lecture Series. The speaker was Sir Andrew Haines, FRCGP, FRCP, FFPH FMedSci, Professor of Environmental Change and Public Health of the Centre on Climate Change and Planetary Health in London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The British High Commissioner to Cyprus, H.E. Mr. Stephen Lillie CMG, as well as Prof. George K. Christophides, from Imperial College and The Cyprus Institute, addressed the event.
 
In his opening remarks on behalf of the British High Commission, Stephen Lillie focused on the upcoming 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), “our last best chance to set the world on a pathway to avoid catastrophic and irreversible global climate change”. The British High Commissioner highlighted that since the Paris Agreement in 2016, which aimed at limiting global rise of average temperatures to 1.5 degrees, the world has not done nearly enough, and our planet continues to heat up. “This year we witnessed the worst forest fires in the history of independent Cyprus. It’s evident that the climate crisis is not some abstract threat in the future, but already upon us”, the High Commissioner stressed, underlining the UK Government’s ambition to secure a global goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050,” Lillie stressed.
 
Following his welcome words, Prof. George K. Christophides made a brief historical review on Ronald Ross, who gave his name to this Lecture series, and his connection with the struggle against Malaria in Cyprus. He also made the connection between vector-borne diseases and Climate Change, which he referred to as greatest challenge in all human history: “Climate Change is a challenge of existential threat, which has already, and will continue to affect our planet in general, and the EMME region, and Cyprus in particular. The impacts of Climate Change and human health would be enormous amongst them projected dramatic increase of the spread of vector-borne diseases. The mission of both the scientists and policy makers is equally huge and critical”, he stated.
 
In his talk, Prof. Andrew Haines, focused on how Climate Change is projected to have far-reaching and potentially catastrophic effects on health, with the poor, who have contributed least to emissions, likely to experience the largest impacts. “The effects of Climate Change on health may be direct - from extreme heat; mediated through ecosystems, such as changes in the incidence and distribution of vector-borne diseases, including Dengue and Malaria; or mediated through complex socioeconomic pathways, such as impoverishment and population displacement”, he noted.
 
In addition, Prof. Haines said that by declining in the production of vegetables, legumes, and fruit could increase the risks of non-communicable diseases. “Severe childhood stunting particularly in Africa and South Asia is projected to increase markedly. Floods and droughts can have pervasive impacts, including on mental health. Pre-existing illness, such as HIV, can increase vulnerability, to undernutrition as a result of droughts. Increasing heat stress reduces the capacity for physical labour, and will therefore reduce income of already deprived populations”, he stated.
 
Prof. Haines highlighted that there is evidence that Climate Change is already having effects on health.  A recent study, based on data from over 700 sites around the world, suggests that over 30% of heat - related deaths over the past two decades can be attributed to Climate Change. “While human societies can adapt to Climate Change, there will be limits to adaptation, for example from extreme heat exposure exceeding the physiological capacity to regulate core body temperature in some locations. Implementing policies to promote resilient health systems, able to respond to climate shocks can reduce health effects, but cutting emissions rapidly to achieve the target of the Paris Agreement, to limit global average temperature increase to well under 2°C, will be essential to reduce the risks to health”, he said.
 
According to Prof. Haines, many policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions can yield near term improvements in human health, e.g. cutting fossil fuel combustion can reduce ambient air pollution deaths, and increased walking and cycling can reduce both air pollution and the incidence of diseases related to physical inactivity. “Providing clean, affordable energy can also reduce deaths from household air pollution. Reduced animal product consumption (particularly from ruminants) in high consuming populations, and increased consumption of fruit, vegetable and seeds, can reduce GHG emissions and improve health. Valuing these co-benefits can make such policies more attractive to decision makers and incentivise climate action”, he noted.
 
Finally, Prof. Haines concluded that “despite the fact that humanity is faced by very substantial threats - in a sense of pessimism - may be a luxury we can’t afford. We have to actually move forward with constructive proposals based on science, but accepting that science doesn’t have all the answers. We need to engage communities and the political structures in each country as well. I would like to end on a positive note, having also raised the threats”.
 
Prof. Andrew Haines was formerly a primary care physician and Professor of Primary Health Care at UCL. He developed an interest in climate change and health in the 1990’s and was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the 2nd and 3rd assessment exercises and review editor for the health chapter in the 5th assessment. He was Director (formerly Dean) of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine from 2001-October 2010. He chaired the Scientific Advisory Panel for the 2013 WHO World Health Report, the Rockefeller/Lancet Commission on Planetary Health (2014-2015) and the European Academies Science Advisory Council working group on climate change and health (2018-2019).
 
He currently co-chairs the InterAcademy Partnership (140 science academies worldwide) working group on climate change and health and is also co-chairing the Lancet Pathfinder Commission on health in the zero-carbon economy. He has published many papers on topics such as the effects of environmental change on health and the health co-benefits of low carbon policies. His current research focuses on climate change mitigation, sustainable healthy food systems and complex urban systems for sustainability.
 
The Ronald Ross Lecture Series is a public lecture series co-organised by The Cyprus Institute and the British High Commission in Nicosia. It aims to bring eminent British scientists and academics to a Cypriot audience, sharing the latest knowledge in subjects of global importance. In 2019, the inaugural lecture in the series was delivered by Prof. Joanna Haigh, former director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London. The Lecture Series is named after Sir Ronald Ross, the British scientist who received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1902 for his work on the transmission of Malaria, following fieldwork in Asia and Cyprus.
 

The Cyprus Institute will continue raising awareness on the Climate Crisis with its 2nd International Conference, titled “Climate Change in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East Region”, while the UK Government will host the crucial COP26 Summit in Glasgow on 1-12 November.

The lecture is available on The Cyprus Institute’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.