Covid-19,Climate Change And Planetary Health

Professor Arvind Jasrotia
7 July 2020 12:07 PM GMT
Covid-19,Climate Change And Planetary Health


Exposing the inadequacy of dominant western ethical tradition to provide a satisfactory basis for an environmental ethic and decrying human chauvinism, Richard Routley in his Last Man Arguments, asked us to visualize a hypothetical situation in which the last person, surviving a world catastrophe, acts to ensure the elimination of all other living things and non-natural world after his demise. Anthropocentrically, the last person would do nothing morally wrong, yet there is a moral intuition of the anticipated last act being morally wrong since those non-human objects in the environment and planet's landscapes, whose destruction is ensured by the last person, have intrinsic value, apart from their usefulness for humankind. Ecocentrism rejects human chauvinism of anthropocentrism and argues that all of nature has intrinsic value. Human chauvinism is detested, not the humans. Humans and human culture can blossom and flourish as is the case with other species. Ecocentric positions are weaved around a non-human centered attitude towards nature with value residing in the ecosphere as a whole. Radical perspectives such as Deep Ecology and Ancient indian Philosophy support ecocentric approach towards nature as also certain nascent international soft law instruments [See, here and here].

The planet Earth appears restive. Nature has sent us an astute message with COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing climate crisis. Humankind has placed too much pressure on the natural resources with catastrophic consequences. Both Climate change and COVID-19 pandemic has become biggest global health threats and urgent curative and transformative steps are needed to combat this existential crisis. (See here) Climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet even as COVID-19 pandemic, with over 10 million infected cases and 5 Lakh deaths worldwide, (and still counting), has painfully exposed the deep inequalities and fragilities of the social, political and economic structures carved for our living. Both Climate change and COVID-19 pandemic depicts the inter-connectedness between the health of people and the planetary health. Human activity has altered virtually every sphere of Earth, bringing humans into contact with new vectors. Seventy-five percent of all emerging infectious diseases in humans have had their origin in zoonotic source. The long-term threats of climate change and ecosystem and biodiversity loss also spring from the destruction of nature. The IPCC Reports released so far have also consistently confirmed human activities to be the dominant cause of observed global warming with discernible impacts affecting the basic elements of life for people around the world – access to water, food production, health, and the environment. IPCC introduced the idea of tipping points two decades ago where large-scale discontinuities in the climate system were considered likely only if global warming exceeded 5 °C above pre-industrial levels. However, the two most recent IPCC Special Reports suggests that tipping points could be exceeded even between 1 and 2 °C of global warming. As per estimates of UNEP Emission Gap Report 2019, nations must triple the level of ambition of their first NDCs as per Paris Climate Agreement to limit global warming to 2 °C and fivefold increase to limit warming to 1.5 °C.


In a planetary system of finite resources, human activities motivated by an attitude of rampant consumerism and unsustainable patterns of production and consumption have never been as inhumane and callous towards environment as in the modern era of scientific and technological innovations. Scientists refer to the current geologic era of human-induced environmental change as the Anthropocene in contrast to a stability era known as Holocene. This anthropogenic change has exacted a heavy toll on the natural world and is being referred as sixth mass extinction. This has amplified demands on our ailing regulatory institutions, including law and its constructs, such as human rights. Human agency is significantly complicit in the genesis of the anthropocene and paradoxically charged, through its institutional mechanism, to address anthropocene exigencies. Scientists from Stockholm Resilience Centre have identified nine planetary boundaries that determine the self-regulating capacity of the Earth system. These are climate change, biodiversity loss, interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, global freshwater use, changes in land use, chemical pollution, and atmospheric aerosol loading. Scientists argue that each subsystem or process has a certain 'boundary' (a threshold or tipping point) which, if crossed, may trigger non-linear changes in the functioning of the Earth system, thereby challenging social-ecological resilience at regional to global scales. As per 2015 update four out of nine planetary boundaries, viz., climate change, biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and extinctions), bio-geochemical flows and land system change, have already been exceeded which from planetary health perspective have devastating consequences for human health and requires urgent and transformative actions to protect present and future generations.


Planetary heath refers to the interdependence of health of human civilization and the state of natural system. Exploitation of the environment has contributed to human health and increase in life spans. However, rampant and unsustainable exploitation of the natural resources has led to a tipping point leading to negative impact on human health. In the year 2015, The Rockefeller Foundation-The Lancet Commission on Planetary Health published a seminal report titled Safeguarding Human Health in the Anthropocene Epoch that recognizes the following foundational premise:

Human health and the health of our planet are inextricably linked, and that our civilization depends on human health, flourishing natural systems, and the wise stewardship of natural resources. With natural systems being degraded to an extent unprecedented in human history, both our health and that of our planet are in peril.

The Commission Draws upon the definition of health as 'a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity and the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health as one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition as embedded in the preambular recital of the Constitution of WHO. Planetary health has been referred as the achievement of highest attainable standard of health, well being and equity worldwide through judicial attention to the human system -- political, economic and social - that shape the future of humanity and various natural systems within which humanity can flourish. This inter connectedness is vital for the sustainability of human civilization and to the natural and human made system that support humanity.


Climate change is the defining human development challenge for the 21st century and represents the greatest existential threat for the present and future generations, as well as for non-human nature. Climate change affects health through direct exposures such as heat waves or extreme weather conditions, floods, drought, and increased frequency of intense storms as well as through indirect effects via adverse changes in air pollution, the spread of disease vectors, food insecurity and under-nutrition, displacement, and mental ill health. The 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change has been formed to map out the impacts of climate change, and the necessary policy responses, in order to ensure the highest attainable standards of health for populations worldwide. The implications of climate change for a global population of 9 billion people threatens to undermine the last half century of gains in development and global health. The study says that health effects of Climate Change are the biggest global health threat of the 21st century and paradoxically, tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity. Many mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change are thus no-regret options, which lead to direct reductions in the burden of ill-health, enhance community resilience, alleviate poverty, and address global inequity.

The 2019 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change provides evidence of the exposures, vulnerabilities, and impacts of climate change on health along a range of temperature and precipitation pathways, with reductions in crop yield potentials, and increases in vectoral capacity for a number of climate-sensitive diseases. These effects are felt most acutely by low-income and middle-income countries across the world. Amongst other findings, emphasizing intergenerational equity, the study predicts that if the 'business as usual' emission pathway is followed by the global community, a child born today will experience 40C warmer than the pre-industrial average, with the potential for their health to be marred by under nutrition, increased vector-borne disease, wildfires and heat-related effects on work. Alternatively, in a world embracing the Paris Agreement's ambition via rapid coal power phase out, uptake of clean energy, electrification of transport, support for plant rich diets, increased green space and active commuting opportunities, a child born today will experience cleaner air, decreased chronic disease, strengthened social ties and manageable levels of warming.

As per the stated aim of Paris Climate Agreement of keeping global average temperature below 2°C guardrail requires total anthropogenic CO2 emissions to be kept below 2900 billion tonnes (GtCO2) by the end of 21st century. As of 2011, total emissions since 1870 were a little over half of this, with current trends expected to exceed 2900 GtCO2 in the next 15–30 years. High-end emissions projection scenarios show global average warming of 2·6–4·8°C by the end of this century. In the year 2014, CO2 concentration had reached more than 400 parts per million (ppm). Notice that every additional ppm is equivalent to about 7·5 billion tonnes of atmospheric CO2.


Thus post COVID-19 pandemic, global community requires strenuous efforts to accelerate the shift to cleaner energy alternatives, such as solar and wind and promoting investments in cleaner energy and climate change mitigation and resilience efforts. Simultaneously, an integrated approach on the 2030 Agenda, the SDG Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement should be pursued as these are still humanity's best bet towards a brighter future with stronger health systems, fewer people living in poverty, less gender inequality, a healthier environment and more resilient societies. COVID-19 does not provide a silver lining for the environment, but it provides the impetus to revamp our relationship with nature and build a better world. Adverse impacts on human and planetary health will come from many sources as the world deals with COVID-19: a spike in hazardous waste, such as PPE kits, electronics and pharmaceuticals, wastewater and massive use of detergents, disinfectants and antimicrobial solutions,

A healthy planet is thus critical to our ability to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic and to combat climate crisis. This requires a new sense of global solidarity and universal responsibility that rests upon the recognition of the interdependence of human health and planetary health
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