Profiles of Norwegian science: Norway’s health and climate change role

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Christiana Figueres, previously the head of the UN climate change agency, launching the climate change and health indicators project in London in November.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

In May 2009, a scientific commission declared that climate change is “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” In June 2015, a second scientific commission concluded that “tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.”

Both commissions were organized from London, by University College London and one of the top medical journals, The Lancet. This work now continues through a new collaboration launched in November to develop indicators for health and climate change and then to track them until 2030: The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change.

Norway, as one of the healthiest countries in the world with a long-standing interest in climate change, could have a strong role in global health and climate change research. Yet the topic remains a gap to be filled.

The Lancet Countdown project comprises five groups, the first of which is the health impacts of climate change. These impacts are frequently physical, such as outdoor workers exposed to increased heat. They can also be psychological, such as Arctic indigenous peoples experiencing mental health difficulties when they are unable to hunt in the winter as warmer temperatures make their ice roads increasingly dangerous.

Norway maintains strong global health science, epitomized through the Norwegian Forum for Global Health Research. So far, only a few projects have linked or applied to climate change. Significant scope remains for global health and climate change researchers in Norway to collaborate more.

The second group, health resilience and adaptation, refers to addressing the health challenges brought by climate change. Examples are ensuring that floods do not cause casualties and having the hospital capacity to deal with people affected by excessive heat and cold.

These approaches are the same as dealing with disasters more widely, while building livelihoods that can readily adjust to all forms of change, including environmental trends. Yet Norway’s science traditionally separates climate change out from these topics, rather than joining forces and integrating them.

In fact, Norway has never had a strong researcher cohort working on climate change adaptation or resilient livelihoods. By being involved in The Lancet Countdown, Norway would gain plenty from international expertise on climate change resilience and adaptation.

Group three covers the health benefits of preventing climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing greenhouse gas uptake. Reducing fossil fuel use is a major component of decreasing emissions, such as by driving private vehicles less often.

With fewer vehicles on the road, air quality tends to improve, leading to fewer asthma cases. Meanwhile, cycling and walking more helps to tackle cardiovascular disease.

Norway has plenty of topical research to offer. Two researchers at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU) have just finished editing a volume on “Environmental Determinants of Human Health.” The compilation includes chapters on a low-carbon economy, air pollution, and financial benefits of positive health impacts from improved air quality.

Financial and economic dimensions of health and climate change make up the fourth group of The Lancet Countdown. Indicators include direct and indirect subsidies for all forms of energy, along with the economic costs and benefits of climate change impacting health systems.

A trio of Trondheim-based researchers examined economic and environmental consequences of increased Arctic shipping under climate change. They found shorter shipping routes and cleaner fuels would be offset by the emissions from increased Arctic shipping, yielding no net environmental benefit. Human health consequences need to be further explored.

Finally, the fifth group is about political and broader engagement for health and climate change. Examples are academic and non-academic publications along with appearances of this subject in social media and government policies.

Norway represents a fascinating illustration. The country’s historical leadership in climate politics might have initially been mainly a political ploy. Today, the contrast between Norway’s deep environmental consciousness and its seemingly insatiable thirst for oil continues as a debate in the streets, in parliament, and in academia.

These five project groups are developing the indicators over the next several months. Most project partners are currently based in the UK. In addition to some others scattered around the world, the United Nations and Ministries of Health are involved. One Scandinavian partner currently works on The Lancet Countdown, Umeå University in Sweden.

Now is the time for new partners to join, so opportunities exist for Norwegian institutes to volunteer their expertise.
Norwegian scientists can step up to put Norwegian science on the international stage of health and climate change research.

Sources:
• The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change: lancetcountdown.org

• UN Health Index: hdr.undp.org/en/content/health-index

• Norwegian Forum for Global Health Research: www.globalhealth.no

• “Environmental Determinants of Human Health,” Eds. Jozef M. Pacyna & Elisabeth G. Pacyna: link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-319-43142-0

• “Economic savings linked to future Arctic shipping trade are at odds with climate change mitigation,” Haakon Lindstad, Ryan M. Bright, & Anders H. Strømman: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0967070X15300470

• “A pioneer country? A history of Norwegian climate politics,” Peder Anker: link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-016-1653-x

Ilan Kelman (www.ilankelman.org and Twitter @Ilan­­­Kelman) is a Reader in Risk, Resilience, and Global Health at University College London, England, and a fellow at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 30, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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