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From Healing Bodies to Healing Earth: Harnessing the Legacy of Health Activism in the Fight Against Climate Change

By guest contributor Shweta Narayan

July 2023 is now the officially the hottest month ever recorded on Earth, and it’s clear that the impact of climate change on human health is undeniable and far-reaching. Rising global temperatures contribute to extreme weather events such as heatwaves, hurricanes, and droughts, which endanger lives, damage infrastructure, and disrupt healthcare systems. The resultant increase in injuries, respiratory illnesses, and mental health disorders poses a direct threat to individuals and communities worldwide.

Climate change also exacerbates existing health challenges. Air pollution, intensified by fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, causes respiratory diseases and cardiovascular problems. Changes in rainfall patterns and rising temperatures facilitate the spread of infectious diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and Lyme disease. Moreover, food and water scarcity, driven by climate change, jeopardize nutrition and sanitation, leading to malnutrition and diarrheal diseases. Climate change is also undermining social determinants for good health such as livelihoods, equality and access to health care and social support structures.

Climate Crisis and the Role of Health:

Health professionals have a long-standing tradition of standing up for the health and well-being of communities and influencing social change, spanning from challenging the tobacco industry’s deceitful practices and advocating for smoking regulations to exposing the dangers of lead and mercury exposure, mobilizing against the perils of nuclear war, and rallying for social justice issues like women’s rights and racial equity. In all these matters health professionals have played a crucial role in examining issues from the lens of public health, while generating evidence and lending solidarity to movements. This legacy reflects a persistent drive to safeguard public health, holding industries and institutions accountable while striving for equitable access to a safer and healthier world for all.

Given their ethical duty to protect and promote health, health professionals are uniquely positioned to advocate for climate action. They are both trusted communicators and important actors when it comes to protecting public health. By leveraging their expertise, health professionals can raise awareness about the urgency of the climate crisis, galvanize public support, and drive policy changes that prioritize health. It is only fitting, then, that they are equipped with the necessary knowledge and tools to tackle the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century, climate change.

About the Guide:

Reclaiming Health Activism in the Age of Climate Crisis, available at:

Reclaiming Health Activism in the Age of Climate Crisis” is a campaign guide that draws inspiration from the rich history of health activism in effecting social change. This comprehensive guide aims to rally health professionals worldwide to take on a new challenge: advocating for climate action. Drawing on the historical successes of health professionals in driving reforms, it lays out a compelling case for why health professionals must become influential advocates for climate. The guide aims to inspire present-day health professionals to harness their expertise and credibility as trusted voices to drive climate policy changes at local, national, and global levels.

The guide underscores the urgency of advocating for equitable and sustainable solutions. It equips health professionals with essential campaigning, advocacy, and communication tools to effectively engage with policymakers, communities, and fellow colleagues, making the case for urgent climate action and tangible policy measures. It goes beyond theory and rhetoric, providing actionable steps for organizing campaigns, hosting public awareness events, and collaborating with other advocacy groups to maximize their impact. It emphasizes the importance of multidisciplinary cooperation, encouraging health professionals to form alliances with environmental activists, social justice organizations, and policy influencers to foster a unified front against climate change.

In essence, “Reclaiming Health Activism in the Age of Climate Crisis” serves as a compelling roadmap, equipping health professionals with the knowledge, inspiration, and practical tools to step into their roles as potent advocates for climate action.

The Call to Advocate:

Throughout the history, the most crucial contribution that health professionals have made is the generation of evidence-based knowledge which in turn informs and strengthens social change events. It is important to realize here that it is not just the generation of knowledge that ushers in change, but the active sharing and advocacy based on such knowledge. This includes education of impacted stakeholders, public advocacy, legal action, policy change, cross-social solidarity, and mass mobilization. This is not to say that health professionals must lead these areas of action, but it is imperative upon them as trusted social actors committed to the Hippocratic Oath of “First Do No Harm” to find a way for their professional skills to make a powerful contribution to the social movements of their times. 

PLOS Global Public Health addresses deeply entrenched global inequities in public health and makes impactful research visible and accessible to health professionals, policy-makers, and local communities without barriers. Submit your original research today!

About the Author:

Shweta Narayan coordinates the Global Climate and Health Campaign for Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), an international NGO in 81 countries dedicated to making health care available and environmentally sustainable.  She facilitates HCWH’s health professional mobilization initiatives and coordinates staff activities and strategic campaign planning.  She is based in India and has over two decades of experience advocacy and community organizing experience on environmental justice issues. Her work focuses on providing legal, media and scientific research support to the residents of polluted communities and workers exposed to toxic chemicals.

Shweta’s  TED Talk on the interdependence of human health and planetary health and health sector leadership in climate action, at the TED Countdown Summit 2021 can be found here.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

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