Climate Change: a Public Health Crisis
19 April 2022 | Angela Disney, Queen's Nurse
Queen’s Nurses in the East Midlands region, like many other groups, met virtually throughout the Covid pandemic.
At the end of one our recent meetings we were discussing whether to continue meeting virtually or resume meeting face to face. The regional group stretches across a wide geographical area, which of course necessities some nurses having to drive a significant distance to a central venue. As part of the discussion, a rather throwaway comment was made regarding the benefits to the climate of continuing to meet virtually. This set us thinking more deeply about what we as a group of Queen’s Nurses (QNs) could and should do to reduce our carbon footprint and protect our wonderful world.
Awareness among QNs of the impact of climate change was already heightened due to the COP 26 conference then taking place in Glasgow (HOME – UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) at the SEC – Glasgow 2021 (ukcop26.org). We therefore agreed that our next meeting would focus on the impact of climate change and agree actions that the East Midlands QNs could take to help save the planet and ensure our world remains wonderful.
Nurses are the most trusted of all professions and comprise around 60% of health professionals worldwide. Nurses’ collective potential to change the trajectory of climate action is unparalleled. Nurses also have a duty of care to protect and promote public health in the face of climate change and have a unique and vital role to play. Their expertise, diverse roles and trust invested in them means they can be leaders in protecting the health of the public from the consequences of climate change.
Nurses’ collective potential to change the trajectory of climate action is unparalleled. Nurses also have a duty of care to protect and promote public health in the face of climate change and have a unique and vital role to play. Their expertise, diverse roles and trust invested in them means they can be leaders in protecting the health of the public from the consequences of climate change.Angela Disney, QN
A Challenging Future
Climate change threatens the very foundations of human health and even our existence. Human activity is changing the planet’s biosphere, bringing disruption to planetary health through climate change, air pollution, ocean acidification, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity. The worst impacts of climate change could be irreversible by 2030. The experts say that in the space of 30 years the UK has warmed by 0.9 degrees Centigrade and become 6% wetter: the 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years. A warming world also increases the intensity of natural disasters. Hurricanes are reaching new extremes, with the frequency of high intensity hurricanes ranked as category 4 or 5 increasing over the last 30 years. It has become more difficult for people to escape these storms unscathed, and it will only get harder in the future.
More than 400 million people will be unable to work outside due to the heat by the 2030s, with 10 million deaths predicted annually due to heat stress. By 2040, researchers state that almost 700 million people a year will probably be exposed to severe droughts, likely to last at least six months. By 2050, more than 70% of people in every region of the world will probably experience heat waves. Conversely, the amount of flooding is likely to surge by the turn of the next century. Almost 60 million people will likely be affected by river flooding each year due to the rise in relative sea levels.
Impacts on Human Health
Climate change will have a wide range of effects on public health, including problems related to water availability, nutrition, mental health and well-being, displacement, migration and health equity.
Floods have been associated with failures in domestic and commercial water supplies, with consequent wide-ranging impacts on sanitation, including water and food-borne diseases. Floods increase the risk of drinking water becoming contaminated by bacteria, sewage, agricultural waste or chemicals. Disruption of critical utilities such as electricity and water has huge implications for healthcare. A recent study of the psychological impacts of flooding in the UK found that, among flood-affected adults, almost 28% met criteria for symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), almost 25% for anxiety and 35% for depression.
Climate change is likely to lead to reductions in the availability of certain foods, which may lead to poorer nutrition in some population groups. Additionally, it is predicted that there will be disruption to food supplies as a result of fire or floods. Higher temperatures threaten water supplies. Crop yields will likely be reduced due to heat or flooding, affecting food security and pushing up the price of food – arguably something that is already happening.
Due to land use changes and human activities, it is likely that the range, activity and vector potential of ticks and mosquitoes will increase across the UK. There is also the potential for the introduction of exotic species and pathogens. Increased temperatures will allow pathogens such as Salmonella to grow more readily in food.
Warmer summers and rising temperatures in the UK, coupled with a growing number of people in our cities and an ever-increasing population of older people, will result in an increased number of heat-related deaths. A rise in the amount of ultra-violet radiation (UVR) received at ground level has potential effects on human health including a rise in the number of cases of optical damage, ageing of the skin and malignancies.
Can Nurses Save the World?
The nursing profession’s leadership originated with Florence Nightingale. She is remembered for making enduring changes to nursing and demonstrating her passion for promoting health. Her progressive and even subversive work made it clear that all health is environmental health; all life depends on the earth’s primal assets.
Nursing has immense potential to create and disseminate messages about the climate that are acceptable to those who are doubtful about climate change. Nurses are close to the people most vulnerable to climate change. Many nurses work with people who are underserved, marginalized, or both. Nurses have a duty to protect and promote public health in the face of climate change threats and have a vital role to play.
The Queen’s Nursing Institute (QNI) is dedicated to improving the nursing care of people in the community. Queen’s Nurses (QNs) are individuals who demonstrate a high level of commitment to patient care and nursing practice and who are dedicated to the highest standards of care. QNs are well positioned and encouraged to exert influence on government, policy makers and employers and to campaign on environmental issues. By framing action on the climate and ecological crisis as an opportunity to improve patient and public health, QNs can promote public motivation to act. Through their example and advocacy, they can promote healthy, sustainable living and reduce carbon emissions.
The next green blog will focus on some positive actions that we as nurses can take within the workplace.
Angela Disney QN
Other blogs in this series:
Cover image by Markus Spiske, pexels