UCL Health of the Public


Transcript: Episode 1: What does climate change have to do with public health?


people, climate, movement, world, climate change, impacts, global, public health, individuals, fact, ucl, health, future, action, activist, global health, economy, podcast, circular economy


Paul Ekins, Dominique Palmer, Xand Van Tulliken, Rochelle Burgess

Xand Van Tulliken  00:02

Hello, and welcome to Episode One of public health disrupted the brand new podcast from UCL Health of the Public. I'm Xand Van Tulliken. I'm a doctor and a writer. I'm a TV presenter. And I'm prepared to do pretty much anything to engage people in the idea of public health, what it is, what it does, how we can improve it. I do mean anything, whether it's editing textbooks on humanitarian medicine, or being generally undignified and silly on children's television.


Rochelle Burgess  00:29

And I'm Rochelle Burgess. I'm a community health psychologist and I specialise in community based and community led approaches to health. I'm a lecturer at the UCL Institute for global health, and a self confessed hippie, it's always a bit hard to say it every time I feel like it's some sort of secret that I've told the world but there it is. And what that basically means is that I'm really interested in issues of communities solidarity, social change, and the importance of that to our efforts to improve health around the world. This podcast is about public health. But more importantly, it's about the systems that need disrupting to make public health better. So please join us monthly as we challenge the status quo, ask what needs to change and why. Each week we'll be joined by activists, scholars, artists, comedians, industry professionals, and anybody else we can think of. We want as many people from inside and outside of UCL to join in our conversation.


Xand Van Tulliken  01:32

We're calling this podcast public health disrupted because that is what we want to do. We want to break down the boundaries, disciplinary, sectoral geographic, and really understand the complex issues that are impacting our health, understand how we can improve public health. In today's episode, we're going to be exploring how tackling climate change can improve our health.


Rochelle Burgess  01:53

And so by this, we're talking about reducing the risk of heat waves improving air quality, and other sort of environmental harms to our health.


Xand Van Tulliken  02:02

I think, and even beyond that, you know, huge global movements of people are loss of biodiversity. I mean, I think in some ways we can connect the current pandemic, to climate change and environmental destruction. So by designing climate change strategies that incorporate public health goals into their objectives, we can start to go further into addressing this issue. The fact is that the effects of a climate crisis are being felt very much today by really everyone on earth in some way. future projections highlight a devastating risk to the health of the public, we want to know could tackling climate change be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century?


Rochelle Burgess  02:45

And I don't think that you and I are going to answer that we've got some amazing people with us today. But you know, just a bit of background, I definitely think that we're moving in the right direction. I'm sort of seeing that as a reality. So we had the Lancet countdown launched its 2020 report this week, which sort of really highlights that global health and its intersections with climate change are very much a space where we need to be working and in positioning our thought and action. So if you're interested in that and finding out more about that report, you can check it out at www.lancetcountdown.org. And in terms of continuing to listen now, we're incredibly lucky to be joined by two amazing speakers this afternoon, or whenever it is, you're listening. We're joined by Dominique Palmer, climate activist and organiser within the UK student climate network. Dominque organises climate strikes mobilises students across the UK, and has recently been named one of Forbes 100 top UK environmentalists because of her amazing advocacy and activist work. Dominique is also wearing her double hat of being a student, as well as an activist and she is studying for a BA in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Birmingham.


Xand Van Tulliken  04:00

Very exciting to have Dominique here and we've also got Professor Paul Ekins OBE. Paul is a professor of resources and environmental policy and director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable resources here at, you guessed it, UCL. His academic work focuses on the conditions and policies for achieving an environmentally sustainable economy. He's an authority on a number of areas of energy, environment, economy, interaction, and environmental policy. And of course, he has the number of numerous papers, articles, book chapters, and indeed books. I don't think they make you a professor without doing all those things. It's lovely to have both of you here with us. Paul, can I start with you, the harm of climate change to public health? It's a huge issue. Can you kind of sum it up and talk about the array of harms?


Paul Ekins  04:56

Yeah, and I'm very glad that a Rochelle mentioned the Lancet Countdown on global health and climate change, because that came out last week and and that really puts the evidence from scientists about this. I'm an economist, myself, and I contribute the economics and finance part to that report. But I'm sure anyone listening to this, they will have seen on their television screens on numerous occasions during the course of this year, the floods, the hurricanes, the wildfires, all over the world, hottest ever in Siberia, killing 33 people in Australia and the West Coast of the United States. I mean, this is this is climate change. This is it's not all climate change. Obviously, the world has always suffered from these sorts of things. But climate scientists have been saying for 20 years that we can expect those kinds of phenomena to get worse and to become more frequent. And that's exactly what's happening. And the one perhaps I should have mentioned first, but didn't is the heat stress. And that affects all continents, rich countries, as well as poor countries. In fact, Europe was among the worst continents affected by heat stress in terms of people actually dying early because of excessive heat. And of course, in poorer countries where a large part of the labour force actually has to work outside, working outside in temperatures of between 30 and 40 degrees, we are expected to work for eight hours a day, you don't live long under those circumstances. And again, we can expect those temperatures to increase over the coming decades unless we get a handle on climate change and actually start reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. And the other part of the Lancet countdown is that if we can do that, that is an amazing public health opportunity. So we can clean up the air in our cities. And we know that that's one of the biggest causes biggest environmental causes premature death, we can improve our diets and get much healthier. And we've been saying for a long time that obesity, especially in the rich world, but increasingly in the middle classes in the not so rich world is again, a major source of public disease. And then anyone who lives in a city and has to get around the city just knows that the way we organise our transport these days is completely insane. And we could be much healthier. If we walked and cycled short distances, if we took public transport for longer distances and only allowed electric vehicles in into our cities, space is travelling at relatively low speeds for relatively short periods of time. We know all that. And there are some cities around the world that actually do all that. But unfortunately, they're the exception rather than the rule. And I need to become the rule pretty fast.


Rochelle Burgess  07:44

It's such a thing to imagine sort of a world where all of that exists. But I think very much you're saying that we don't have the opportunity to not imagine that. And I think that's for me, what's so exciting about the movement of sort of young climate activists in the student climate network Dominique because your guy's vision for the fact that, you know, the imagined must become reality, and it must happen. Now. Could you tell us a little bit about what your work has been like in the last couple years with the activist network in the UK?


Dominique Palmer  08:16

Yes. So for me personally, I first got involved in climate movement about two years ago now. And the momentum of young people in the climate movement has just rapidly increased. And it has been an absolutely incredible thing to be a part of, and experience. And so in the UK student climate network, we are a student led environmental organisation and taking to the streets to protest the government's lack of action on the climate crisis. And so we have been mobilising unprecedented numbers of students across the UK to create a strong grassroots and national movement in order to pressure the government to act and to push our aims. Our aims are one to save the future, to declare climate emergency and implement a green New Deal. Secondly, to teach the future to reform the education system to teach young people about the urgency of the crisis, which has scientific backing, because a lot of young people aren't aware of the severity. And we deserve to know the future that and the current present that we are facing thirdly to tell the future to communicate this severity to the public. And finally, to empower the future. And this means including young people into policymaking, and so we have local groups across the country. And in 2019, we organised over 850 climate actions, including the September global strike, which had over 300,000 people who are taking to the streets for climate action. So it has been quite an incredible past year in the movement. And we really elevated climate breakdown, we feel onto the agenda and into public consciousness and have gotten more youth engaged in feeling empowered to take collective action. And I think one thing when we're talking about health. And this is just going on to the last question that was asked about the harm of climate change on public health is one issue that's not discussed as much as the impact on mental health as well, which is something that youth and especially have faced a lot in regards to the climate. Because you know, this existential threat, unsurprisingly has significant like psychological impacts. And one of those being eco anxiety, which a lot of young people face. Because a lot of young people don't know all of the education behind the severity of the crisis, which isn't being adequately taught in schools, they don't feel that they can be fully engaged in the process. And so all of that, like anxiety on action and feeling so separated from it can cause a lot of fear and have a lot of impact on people's mental health. And also, obviously, for those already suffering on the frontlines of the climate crisis will have mental health impacts. And, you know, trauma related to disasters, and relocation, and all of these things. And, you know, all of that is part of climate justice. And that is really something that we are pushing for, in the case of climate movement, which is making this a global justice movement. And so we're uniting all of these different struggles from marginalised communities and from you know, different sectors, different parts of society, and like health, for example, and making sure that this is centred on people and planet. So in that way, it brings a very humanising perspective, which is like, this isn't just about numbers or something abstract in the future, but the crisis is something very human, and people focused


Rochelle Burgess  11:30

So many amazing things to pick up on there, you may not know that I am very much, I'm very passionate about mental health and the need for us to connect mental health to sort of wider social social worlds. So I really sort of feel that and it sounds like you guys have got some amazing traction in ways that, you know, I said, I was a hippie. So once upon a time when I was young, you know, I don't remember there being any discussions or debates or critique about, about climate change. And that is not that long ago, and sort of relative history of the planet, I suppose. But there seems to be something really particularly powerful about this moment, I wondered what it was, you thought that so many young people are connecting to here, in driving forward, these these huge global and cross boundary critiques of systems? Well, this generation seems to get it in a way that a lot of people have been shouting into the wind before and not feeling like they have been heard. So I sort of wonder if you could touch on what you know, what you think is driving you guys, Where's it coming from?


Dominique Palmer  12:37

So for us, I think there are like various things that have really just pushed youth forward to be like engaged in this movement. And now millions of young people across the world have taken direct action in the form of like various different physical actions and striking and campaigning. And a lot of the energy that's all being you know, harnessed into this movement is that young people feel betrayed by our global leaders for failing to act in their say, urgency and setting such distant emission targets that essentially leave the next generation to pick up the pieces. And all of these mixed emotions of betrayal. And fear has really all been channelled into this global movement. And for us, you know, we see this as something that is very much in our futures, as well as something that is very present right now. It's a very global movement. And so for example, one of my friends and fellow activists in the movement is also a young person and lives in the Philippines, which as we know, is undergoing a lot of climate related disasters right now. And we're just coming together in that sense, in terms of this, like really like global justice fight and recognising that it is our futures. And it is also the present. And I feel like that aspect of it is really, really humanising the perspective of the crisis. And I think it's really tapped into a lot of young people. And for us, we've also not had like a long lived experience of the system that we're currently in. And so we tend to bring this fresh perspectives. And so when leaders say they cannot act on this, or do that, due to certain constraints within the system, or political will, etc. For us, this feels like such narrow thinking. And, you know, if we created this system, we can change it. And I feel like that's something that's especially unique to young people. And there's so much untapped potential there as well, due to young people being made to feel as if they don't have a voice and they cannot enact change. But once youth realise the power they have to do that it's such an incredible thing mobilisation and I cannot put into words the absolute incredible energy that I see from such young people, a variety of ages in this movement, people coming from all different walks of life engaged in this and it's honestly just an incredible thing to see but also obviously heartbreaking in a way that such young people shouldn't have to be involved and so much in you know, fighting for our very existence on this planet. But they are and they feel as if it is our duty, it is up to us to do it. Because if we don't, then when will action happen?


Xand Van Tulliken  15:07

Can I pick up on that? That's, that's a lovely description of the kind of the motivations, because there seems to be this tension within people seeking change in this area between individual action and behaviour change and regulation and reform of industry, I guess I'm thinking of things like BP creating the idea of the carbon footprint to try and very deliberately apply pressure to individuals to say, Well, if I eat less meat and drove my car less than the climate crisis would be addressed. Whereas in fact, it's more complicated than that. Paul, I know, you've written and thought a lot about regulation and about industry, can you just give us a bit more of that side of it? What kind of changes should we be demanding? And what role do governments play?


Paul Ekins  15:54

Yes, of course. But first, I just like to say, you know, express my own gratitude to, you know, the phenomenon that Dominique has just described, because the youth climate movement has been enormously important over the last year or two. I mean, I've been at this game for quite a long time and been saying the sorts of things that I say, for quite a long time, and no one's really paid a great deal of attention. And it was clear to me in the book I wrote back in 2000, but the problem of climate change was not a technology problem, we had the technologies, just that we weren't deploying them fast enough, wasn't an economic problem, we had the resources, we had the money to deploy these things, if we wanted to do it, both those things have become much more positive. In the 20 years, since that book was published, the problem was and is a political problem. The fact that there are still very large numbers of people making very large amounts of money out of the status quo out of I mean, just about the most powerful industry the world had ever seen was the fossil fuel industry. And of course, there's all sorts of industries that are aligned with it, the iconic invention of the 20th century was the internal combustion engine. And that, of course, is the major user of oil still. So the forces lined up against meaningful political change are enormous. And it's really, therefore not surprising that politicians have found it difficult to move, when you ally it to the fact that lots of people's most cherished behaviours are also very carbon intensive. So they love flying off on foreign holidays, they love driving these cars that I was talking about. Increasingly, they love eating eating meat. And so those lifestyle factors combined with this, this enormous incumbency problem of these powerful Industries has meant the political change is very difficult. And undoubtedly, the climate Youth Movement has changed the dial on that. And to get to your question, specifically, there's an enormous danger in thinking that individuals can do this by themselves. And I'd like to say absolutely, categorically that they cannot, because so much of the solution to climate change and the reducing of the emissions, that cause it has to come through large scale investment. In large scale infrastructure. We've seen these kinds of energy sources that are being put out in the North Sea. Now individuals can't deploy those things. Those are deployed as a result of government policy as a result of incentives that are put in place in the economy, but cause big businesses to change the way they do things. And I mean, I was inspired, as I'm sure many other people were earlier on this week, by hearing that Denmark has finally decided it's not going to explore for any more fossil fuels in the North Sea. And of course, that follows the fact that the company that used to be called Danish oil and North Sea gas, that company changed its name and its activities, from being an oil and gas prospector to being an offshore wind manufacturer. And that's the kind of change which we need to see over and over again, right the way through the industrial system. And obviously, individuals can help by consuming differently and giving market encouragement to those sorts of changes, but they can't bring about those changes by themselves. That has to be done by governments working with businesses in a certain way. And that can only happen through political pressure and political change. And the climate Youth Movement has been a very important part of that.


Rochelle Burgess  19:37

Thanks, Paul. I mean, that's really so important. And so, so refreshing to hear in a in a podcast around public health where often times we think about health as as the responsibility of individuals and one of the things that we are really keen on pushing forward is rethinking where responsibility lies and the need for environments to enable people to be helpful. I think you've really hit the nail on the head there and reminding people that it is not about individuals that this is not something and any one individual can do. I have another sub question, I think it's for both of you because it reminds me of something I read of Dominiques because I now follow her on Twitter. And you had a piece of come out at the end of November summarising activity and actions of the movement and on your Twitter, you sort of reflected actually of this big news from from Denmark and its relationships to wider political statements and also wider global inequalities in that essence that we need to think about how continued action or exploration even if it has sort of an end date that's quite far away has immediate impacts on on those who are more unequally affected by the impacts of climate change in the here and now. And so while in the Western world or European world, we might have a bit, there's this illusion of that there might be more time, we see the burden of the increasing catastrophes linked to climate, being borne by the global south and countries in the global south. And so I wondered if Dominique, you might like to touch on that. And, and after Dominique, if Paul, you can talk about this amazing idea of the circular economy and how we get to that place in the context of such big inequalities between capacities of countries to sort of build those kinds of infrastructure that you're talking about.


Dominique Palmer  21:24

When we talk about climate justice. And especially for me, climate justice is something the key word is in justice in that there has to be action on and acknowledgement of the fact that people, especially those in the global south, are already suffering impacts disproportionately, and there are marginalised communities in the future that will suffer the impacts of this disproportionately, whether that be due to current social situation, such as poverty, and discrimination. So racial justice as well on that aspect, or whether that's due to, you know, economic situations on who has access to what resources, and also, you know, geographical location, like all of these things tie into that. And as a movement, we really, really have to centre that and push for it. Because otherwise, we don't want to end up with climate action, that is simply maybe benefiting us in another part of the world for the time being, but as contributing to devastating devastating impacts on those on the other side of the world. And you touched on the announcement from Denmark, one thing that a lot of us, as youth activists were posting about and you're commenting on is the fact that it's being treated as a massive celebration. But the stage that we're at now is that these kind of steps towards this, like we're at a stage where we need to go beyond just steps and continuing to extract fossil fuels for another three decades is not a celebration to us. And when we say climate action, now, we don't mean, you know, simply having compromises because as we know, the lack of urgency and ambition is already causing devastating destruction of our planet. And in general, the perspective on this from the global north is just having a complete disregard for how actions are impacting people in the most affected areas. And I think this is something like this issue is such like an incredibly important one. And we cannot have action that just results in simply even more exploitation of our resources that relies on labour in these countries, and having indigenous rights completely disrespected. For example, indigenous communities that are protecting our biodiversity, you know, indigenous rights are linked to climate justice, because without their rights, they're subject to land grabs of our environment, and all of these different things are so interconnected to climate justice, and really near colonialism, which really isn't talked about a lot, I believe. And so, you know, it's it's so important that we keep that perspective that those in the global south are facing repercussions of this.


Paul Ekins  24:00

Thanks, Dominique. And if I could sort of come to the question that you post me Rochelle, which about is the circular economy. I mean, this is, this is a relatively new idea. And as such in the West, I mean, actually, China invented the term the circular economy back in the early 2000s. But it wasn't really until 2013, that policymakers in Europe and the US started looking at it seriously. It tries to get across the pretty common sense idea that we would be better off in a finite world if we made better use of the materials that we dig out of the ground very often with huge environmental impacts. And if we get them in circulation much longer, instead of throwing most of them away within the first year of actually having having extracted them, which is the current reality and part of the International resource panel. We did a board looking at the implications of that kind of what is sometimes called take, make and dispose linear economy as opposed to the circular economy. And the extraction and processing of these materials is responsible for about half of all greenhouse gases. And even more important, and Dominique mentioned this in her piece just now, about 90% of biodiversity loss, if we look at the growing of food and the extraction of metals and minerals, and the kind of land devastation that that causes, and the whole idea of a circular economy is that we actually design products to last so that they stay in use much longer. And we therefore don't need them, throw them away so soon, and that, indeed, once their first use is finished, they can either be repaired or the materials in them can be repurposed. And there's all sorts of ways in which this can be brought about. And there have been lots of lots of policies to bring it about the European Union has a circular economy Action Plan, which seeks to start that process. I mean, again, it's a very disruptive process to the current ways of doing things. Because if you've built an industrial system, which for the last 200 years, has worked on a linear economy where where you just grab materials out of the earth, and disregard the environmental impacts with which that extraction has caused, and you then use them and you throw them away in a very short period of time. And you don't manage that process properly, either. So that these materials end up either in landfills where they cause greenhouse gases, or they get into the ocean. And we're all aware of the mountains of plastic that are now floating about in the oceans that are being added every year. These sorts of impacts. I mean, again, it's not surprising, given the incentive structures we've allowed in our economies, it's not surprising that we've got to that situation. But just as Dominique said right at the beginning, we've made those incentive structures and we can create a different kind of economy if we want to. And we can create an economy that makes much more efficient use of these resources. And that then ensures that when they come to the end of their of their useful lives, which they do, they're either recycled into new resources, or they're disposed of properly. And we can do that. It's just that at the moment, it's not a high enough priority on enough policymakers agendas, for us, actually, to implement it.


Xand Van Tulliken  27:42

I think what's so fascinating between the two of you, and I hope you won't mind me saying it is incredible that you are speaking the same language over over a couple of generation and that there is such progress being made. At the same time, I think I'm detecting quite a cautious optimism from both of you because of the enormous political barriers and the opposition because of the status quo, benefiting so many large corporations and so many individuals, but you've certainly painted a very nice picture of how important this issue is for public health. We'd like to end on an optimistic note, can I ask you both what we do for all our guests is ask them if they can either bring or describe for us an artefact, something that keeps you going. One of you is staring down the barrel, I hope of a long career ahead of you. And the other one is a kind of sitting on top of an enormous pile of work on this issue what what has kept you going and what keeps you optimistic through this difficult topic. Paul, can I start with you,


Paul Ekins  28:45

for me easily the most positive thing that's happened this year with regard to the climate thing is the result of the US election. And that means that my artefact which I wasn't able to actually bring but I was able to print was a Biden Harris poster of the kind that if I'd been in the United States, I would have put everywhere all over my house and out in my garden and you know, one of these boards that people put at election times, because that's enormously important. And that means that in 2021, the United States stands a chance of really pushing this agenda forward. Instead of being a real block on the road,  Dominique what about you. So for me, as well as constantly being kept going by being surrounded by those in the climate movement that remind me that others obviously are fighting for this just as much as I am, which does relieve a lot of stress. For me. One thing within that for me is actually my friend, Mitzi who is who lives in the Philippines, and they have currently been undergoing a typhoon is this sign that she has that says we resist as one planet and I just think that that slogan to me.is just so crucial. It's so important. And so personally important to me that we are resisting in like, united in global fight. And it coming from my friend who is obviously living in a country right now that's, you know, going through these impacts already, it just reminds me how much of a global fight that this is. And it really just makes me feel so connected and makes you feel like, you know, I really am part of something that is bigger than myself. And it keeps me going every day keeps me going through activism being really in United fight with everyone. And I feel it makes me feel incredibly empowered.


Xand Van Tulliken  30:38

Oh, that's lovely. Thanks so much for that. And those are two, two lovely artefacts, we should say thank you very, very much to both of you. It's incredibly inspiring to hear your conversation with each other. And to hear that we can be optimistic, although there's a huge amount of work to do so very, very good luck to both of you.


Rochelle Burgess  31:03

you've been listening to public health disrupted. This episode was presented by myself, Rochelle Burgess and Xand Van Tulliken produced by UCL Health of the Public, edited by Cerys Bradley, Our guests today were Dominique Palmer and Professor Paul Ekins.



If you would like to hear more of these podcasts from UCL health of the public, subscribe wherever you download your podcasts or visit www.ucl.ac.uk/health-of-public/. This podcast is brought to you by UCL Minds bringing together UCL knowledge, insights and expertise through events, digital content and activities that are open to everybody.