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University of Copenhagen
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Comment: Climate Change and Obesity?

In this featured comment, a Copenhagen health scientist argues that good policies to prevent diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes are often good policies to prevent climate change

This is likely to cause controversy, but I am going to draw a line in the sand. We have a number of massive global health challenges to address as a society, but to me, there are none more pressing, threatening or crucial to act upon than climate change and non-communicable disease.

They are the Big Two.

At face value, you could be forgiven for seeing these two defining global health challenges -climate change and non-communicable diseases (NCD’s) – as unrelated. Forgiven for thinking of them as separate problems with distinct causes for which we need two groups charged with the implementation of unique solutions.

Stop thinking ‘as if in a silo’

But take a closer look, and you will realise a few things. These are two massive challenges largely resulting from, and solved by, the same determinants. Also, that the immediate and long-term benefits of addressing one are enormous, dwarfed only by the benefits and co-benefits of addressing both together.

The global health community has a lot to do in the coming decades, with increasingly less.
Limited fiscal, human and natural resources available – compounded by austerity and economic conservatism during what could be a lengthy or permanent downturn in government budgets and overseas aid.

As a collective, we must look more to opportunities for common progress and gains, and less to siloed initiatives as we have seen in the past few decades. We must seek out social investments which will maximise the benefits returned. One way of doing so, is to look for measures which will solve multiple problems, or address problems which are caused by the same determinants.

Carbon-intensive … diseases

We must acknowledge that slicing major challenges into verticalised problems diminishes or precludes opportunities for common progress.

You see, NCDs and climate change do in fact share the same causes and largely require the same solutions.

Carbon-intensive and labour-conserving lifestyles; highly-processed food requiring large energy inputs; larger portions of meat and higher calorie diets; increasing air pollution… Yet we separate their responses and those commanded with their mitigation. Health is dependent on a healthy environment, both urban and natural.

The good news

What’s exciting though, is that given their shared causes and mitigation strategies, by addressing one we will also be addressing the other.

By tackling climate change, in addition to bringing the health benefits associated with this alone, we could also bring co-benefits of a reduced burden of chronic disease. By investing in ways to make healthier, less-processed food more affordable we reduce the carbon-intensiveness of our diets but are also likely to see a reduction in diet-related diabetes and heart disease.

Providing safe public environments conducive to biking or active living will not only reduce carbon emissions and environmental pollutants, but may also reduce community rates of asthma, lung disease and even cancers.

This idea, or the inter-linked nature of climate Change and NCD’s is not new. But it continues to largely fly under the community radar. A greater awareness could lead to further discussion, engagement, collaborative mitigation and collective action.

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