Whole-Systems Thinking on Climate - Signs of an Emerging Trend

August 13, 2015 by Stephanie McCauley

Co-benefits of climate change mitigation ©2015 The Lancet Health and Climate Change ©2015 The Lancet

What do the US EPA, a leading medical journal, and the Pope have in common? They all are calling for action on climate change to help address other problems, such as inequality, poor health, and environmental degradation.

Within one week in June, we saw the release of three influential documents on the co-benefits of climate change mitigation: the EPA’s Climate Change in the United States: Benefits of Global Action, the Lancet’s* Health and Climate Change: Policy Responses to Protect Public Health*, and Pope Francis’s Encyclical, ‘Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home. These communications are examples of a new wave of thinking about climate solutions that convey the many opportunities to solve other problems while addressing climate change.

The EPA’s peer-reviewed report compares a scenario of inaction on climate to a scenario limiting temperature change to 2°C, detailing both the risks and benefits for 20 indicators in health, infrastructure, electricity, water resources, agriculture & forestry, and ecosystems. The report shows we can save tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in the US by the end of the century through benefits that include avoiding lost labor due to extreme temperatures, lowering urban drainage adaptation costs, and improving air quality.

While the EPA’s report focuses on benefits realized in 2050 and 2100, the Lancet Commission’s report emphasizes the immediate gains from acting on climate. This well-known medical journal reports that “tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.” Authored by a group of climate and social scientists, engineers, economists, and health professionals from Europe and China, the report makes recommendations for addressing climate in comprehensive ways that can bring global benefits. They emphasize the potential for health issues to motivate the global public and send out a call for health professionals to facilitate collaboration in a response to climate change.

Adding another dimension to the discussion, Pope Francis’s Encyclical details the moral issues of climate change, saying that “everything is connected” and “we have stopped thinking about the goals of human activity.” He asks the world to “move forward in a bold cultural revolution,” one that addresses poverty by bringing together different sectors and works to move away from an economic system based on the accumulation of wealth.

It’s worth taking note when parallel messages are expressed by a religious leader, the public health community, and an environmental agency. And, when that common message includes a whole-systems view on climate action, it seems like a hopeful sign for all of us working to protect the climate and the people who depend upon it.

This post is part of a series on ​multisolving​, or climate-smart policies that simultaneously work to mitigate climate change while providing co-benefits such as the ones described above.