Adapting To An Uncertain Future – A Planetary Health Approach

In nature every species plays its role, from providing food to decomposing organic matter or capturing and storing energy – all with the ultimate aim of regulating the climate. Humanity has its own vital role to play. This role is complex, because our roles change – as individuals, families, members of a local community, being a boss or employee, citizen of a country, but ultimately as people living on this planet. We are all embedded in nature and must recognise that we all have a role to play in protecting our planetary boundaries. As members of this global community business needs to publicly commit to embedding protection of biodiversity and climate change risk management into strategy and governance. To be brutally honest this means changing business models, assessing risk not only as it impacts economic performance but as it impacts nature, and working with rather than against planetary health advocates at the policy level for better regulation to protect and nurture good business practices not just today but in the future. 

We need to think and act now as climate change risk becomes climate crisis reality. Looking at Climate Central’s global risk mapping of land predicted to be below sea level by 2030, many of our key cities will be severely affected – Alor Setar, Teluk Intan, and major parts of the Klang Valley. So we need to act now on how to use our financial resources for development that minimises climate change risk in general and prepares communities in high risk areas by providing financing to protect themselves before it’s too late. This is not some distant future; we are seeing the impacts of the climate crisis everyday now with its unpredictable and extreme weather – it is in the international news every day and our experiences here in Malaysia are increasingly alarming when it comes to increased rainfall and flooding.  

How we think and act needs to change, especially in our current reckless disregard for the planet We need to internalise the fact that our health and well-being are inextricably linked to the health of the planet. A planetary health approach to our existence: 

  • recognises that planetary health is a scientific field and global movement focused on understanding and quantifying the growing human health impacts of anthropogenic global environmental change, 
  • acknowledges that humans are altering the Earth’s ecosystems and that changes in the Earth’s water, land, and atmosphere adversely affect human health and the ability to achieve health and wellbeing. 
  • advocates for recognition of the urgency and scale of problems and required solutions 
  • develops solutions that will allow humanity and the natural systems we depend on to thrive now and in the future.
  • maintains a sharp focus on human health, recognising that the boundaries between humans and all life with which we share this planet are blurred.
  • and argues that “achieving planetary health” – creating conditions that will allow humanity and the natural systems we depend on to thrive now and in the future – will require a great transition where we all learn to do nearly everything differently such as producing and consuming food, manufactured products, and energy; constructing and living in our cities; managing our natural landscapes and resources; co-existing harmoniously and responsibly with social, artificial and digital tech; recalibrating the stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world, our relationship to nature, and what it means to live a good life.

A planetary health approach is what was missing in the lead up to the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 laid bare the gaping holes in our thinking and hence our systems. The respective and necessarily complementary roles the public and private sectors should have played from the start were ill-defined, overlapped or simply, disconnected. We got our act together – but retrofitting systems in the middle of a pandemic is a pretty poor way of doing business and costs a fortune. With this lesson fresh in our collective conscience, I see a need to: 

  • Rapidly scale up our disaster risk assessment capacity so that we have a strong body of knowledge and can plan for a realistic, if frightening, future. I highly recommend watching the film, 2040 by Australian filmmaker Damon Ganeau, to get an idea of what technologies and lifestyle changes we can make today for a healthier and sustainable future. 
  • Push hard for national policies and legislation which explicitly recognise the relationship between people and planet, and which promote a revision to development frameworks so that they recognise and protect this relationship. 
  • Submit ourselves to implement these policies and laws. This means holding our leaders accountable for the decisions that they make and, even more difficult, holding ourselves accountable for the decisions we make within our own tiny spaces that, all the same, affect both other people and the planet.
  • Make sustainable practices the new norm. Audit your own lifestyle. Be conscious of your carbon footprint – and that includes corporate carbon. On the institutional side, embed climate and sustainability considerations across your organisations, in every department. Make socially responsible investments and fool-proof your governance systems against corruption, malpractices and abuse, and any rent-seeking behaviours.  

Our pre-COVID ‘normal’ was what got us here in the first place, but this is not to say that it is too late. We have a small window of opportunity to right our wrongs, redesign our systems and rebuild our communities and economies in the face of the planetary crisis that is now unfolding. But we need to get on with it. So – my call to action is – let’s not sit here and talk. Let’s go out and do.

By Prof. Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, Executive Director, Sunway Centre for Planetary Health, Sunway University

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