This week I attended University of Otago’s Public Health Summer School course, “Responding to Climate Change: Sustaining Health and Wellbeing” here in Wellington, New Zealand. It was a bit too much ‘death from PowerPoint’ and backside-numbing sitting, but did have its lighter–and more enlightening moments. Climate change, and environmental degradation in general, are the biggest global public health issues of the 21st Century.
One of the main speakers was Professor Ralph Sims, from the School of Engineering and Technology at Massey University, Wellington. Professor Sims is the lead author of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2011 report “Energy-Smart” Food For People and Climate. He is also an international consultant and contributor for the UN highly influential (and of course, controversial) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) whose Fifth Assessment Report is being made public this year (ironically enough the report is only available in the format of a door-stopping hard copy). When he discovered our group was from Seattle, he provided (well deserved) asides about our considerable (mostly negative) role in climate change.
The IPCC report’s work group report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” which includes features on the health impacts (both positive and negative–although not surprisingly the negatives outweigh the positives) on population health will be released March 31st. Alistar Woodward, a biostatistician from the University of Auckland, and who is a member of the scientific panel for this work group, also presented at the course/conference. It wasn’t clear from his presentation if this will be in their final report, but he highlighted a statistic that if all of the world’s women who now have restricted access to contraception/family planning services were suddenly provided with that access, it would lower CO2 emissions by 40% by 2100. How about increasing efforts to develop and promote effective male contraceptives?
One of my favorite presenters was (yes, all the scientists/main presenters were men) Dr. Nick Wilson from the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago. He specializes in nutrition and he talked about food and agricultural policies in response to the threat of climate change. I really had no idea of the extent of the dependence of the global food sector on fossil fuels. The food sector accounts for 30% of the world’s total energy consumption and produces 20% of greenhouse gases–and 2/3 of that is from primary farms and fisheries. The worst ‘offenders’ in terms of methane production are ruminants: like cattle, sheep, and goats. If you’ve ever driven around New Zealand you will know that there are way more cows and sheep here than there are people. Kangaroos are not ruminants, so Dr. Wilson encouraged people to eat kangaroos instead of cows. (A Kiwi ribbing of Aussies?). Perhaps more feasible as interventions are efforts to promote higher vegetarian-based diets (with well-established health benefits), an emphasis on ‘local and organic’ food, and efforts to decrease food wastage.