The Interwoven Fates of Climate Change and Health – Erik Choi

WHO panel discussionAttending COP27 has been the privilege of a lifetime. It is hard to put into words the sense of veneration that filled me when I found myself surrounded by politicians, activists, educators, and students all united by a genuine passion for climate justice. I came to the conference with the goal of learning how I could pursue a career in the healthcare sphere having gained a perspective on the environment’s role in human health. Like many others, I have always equated healthcare to medications, research innovations, and doctor visits. My experience at COP27 showed me how multidimensional health truly is, and emphasized how the climate crisis deteriorates it. Furthermore, I learned how the inequalities exacerbated by climate change are further amplified through health outcomes.

A particularly memorable panel I attended was hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO). Dr. Tolullah Oni, a physician-scientist and urban epidemiologist of the University of Cambridge, moderated a conversation between academics, leaders of philanthropic organizations, and medical students on the effects of energy, agriculture, and food systems on health in Africa. The conversation reaffirmed much of what I knew: the importance of a nutritious, whole-food based diet and the detrimental effects of pollution. But it also expanded my current views on how sophisticated the issue is. For example, I never considered how the permeation of processed, cheap, calorically dense foods from the West have wreaked havoc on indigenous food systems.

Listening to the panel was sobering. I couldn’t help but introspect on the chasm between the food systems in developed countries like the United States and developing countries around the world. The responsibility to close that gap is on the developed countries, who are responsible for the dissemination of a culture of consumerism that has poisoned systems around the world.

So how do we combat this issue?

From a policy perspective, the speakers emphasized time and time again the importance of context. Every country is in a different stage of their economic and social development. Whether it’s in transitioning to greener energy, establishing transportation infrastructure, or reforming food systems, the starting points of a country and the pathways through which a country travels to reach a sustainable future matter. Thus, policy and strategies should be tailored to an individual country’s needs to fully utilize resources and create perpetual change.

I asked myself what I could do as a student fascinated by health and inspired by the work of the public health experts in front of me. I had the chance to briefly speak with Dr. Oni before she rushed off to another meeting. I asked her how aspiring medical professionals can enter the field with a cognizance of the various environmental factors affecting health. Her response stuck with me and offered insight into how she ended up in the interdisciplinary position she is in now. She told me she had to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Interdisciplinary collaboration is difficult, especially in a field as broad as health, but it is necessary to see progress. Seeking educational opportunities in non-clinical areas, such as public health, can bridge the gap between the clinical and non-clinical sides of healthcare so that healthcare can be delivered in a more complete and holistic manner. While her advice was health-specific, I strongly believe in the sentiment of incorporating an interdisciplinary, environmental lens into research and policy, because everything is interlinked and affected by climate change.