Preparing the weather for Copenhagen

Richard Horton
Editor, The Lancet

September 2009

“Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” This conclusion, published in May this year, announced the launch of The Lancet’s first International Commission, an initiative to partner with leading academic institutes to investigate critical health predicaments facing the world.

In December 2009, nations will gather in Copenhagen to plan their response to climate change. Together with University College London, The Lancet’s editors put together a team of scientists and academics across the many different faculties of the University – medicine, public health, environment, engineering, political science, law, anthropology, economics, and even philosophy - to make a contribution to that debate.

Our objective was to review the totality of evidence about climate change. But not through the narrow lens of only one discipline. We wanted to explore the connections between different perspectives. What are the links between climate change science and global politics? How might engineering help health through societal adaptations to higher temperatures? What are the legal ramifications of environmental policies? How can human behaviours be shaped and changed? What does climate change tell us about our futures?

The underlying idea behind Lancet Commissions is that the academic community is an important, but neglected, force (and resource) for policymakers and politicians who lead our scientific and health communities. We want to bring the best scientists in the world together to focus on neglected but significant health issues, all for the purpose of creating the most reliable scientific foundation for decision-making at national and global levels.

We believe that an international medical journal, as part of a global publishing organization, can achieve this aim. At least, we are trying!

This first Lancet-UCL Commission examined our current state of knowledge about climate change and disease and mortality, food, water and sanitation, shelter and human settlements, extreme events, and population and migration.

The Commissioners identified five policy priorities – obtaining better information about the likely threats of climate change; tackling poverty and inequality where climate change will hit hardest (Africa); driving new technologies to produce cleaner, greener energy; moving the political debate in such a way as to gather public support for massive social change; and encouraging private and public institutions to adapt to a new future that climate change will bring.

This work followed an earlier project we completed with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (and which we published and launched in 2007). The purpose of this first initiative was to examine climate change in the much broader context of the way in which human beings use energy.

Fundamentally, climate change is about the misuse of the planet’s energy supplies. Instead of what we do today, we need a strategy for electricity generation that cuts CO2 emissions. We need a transport infrastructure that emphasises cycling and walking, rather than cars and aeroplanes. We need cities that promote this radically different transport system. And we need an agriculture that reduces its contribution to greenhouse gases (a fifth of damaging gases come from the agricultural sector).

In November this year, a third phase of our work on climate change will be launched at a conference in London, just before the key Copenhagen climate meeting. Again with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, we have commissioned a series of reports looking at the benefits to health if we reduce greenhouse gases.

So far, the climate change debate has focused on the economic benefits of reacting to climate threats – for example, the UK’s Stern Report. But defeating climate change by altering the way we live will also deliver huge health benefits too. We want to map what those benefits might be. We believe that if we can show how responding now to climate change will improve our health – and our children’s health – this evidence could be a powerful motivating force for political change.

The Lancet is only one medical journal, to be sure. We cannot change the world on our own – at least not overnight! But we do believe that science has a vital contribution to make to a better world. This is our mission. It is Elsevier’s mission too.

Richard Horton

Richard Horton, Editor, The Lancet