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Public Health Implications of Climate Change Addressed at Dublin Conference

25 March 2010


Head of the Sustainable Development Commission in Northern Ireland, Jim Kitchen recently addressed an Institute of Public Health conference in Dublin. Concentrating on the public health implications of climate change for policy makers and service deliverers across Ireland, Mr Kitchen outlined both the scale of the challenge and some of the steps that could be taken to address it.

“There are many parallel values of sustainable development & the public health agenda - improving lives, protecting the weakest, fairness, wellbeing, being the most obvious, but there is also a wider and deeper connection which, whilst not immediately obvious at first, can make a major difference to society. 

Looking at the ever increasing strain on the health services on both sides of the border and the changing diets and lifestyle choices people across Ireland are now making, we can see that a real crisis is developing.  Indeed in Ireland today we can say with justification that obesity is the public health equivalent of climate change.  A number of reasons point towards this conclusion:

  • People acknowledge the problem but don’t take personal responsibility for tackling it.
  • Governments have recognised the implications but haven’t begun to act early enough.
  • These have combined to create an acceptance, a normalisation of the issues.     
  • The environmental determinants aren’t fully understood.

This however, is not a counsel of despair – It is not too late to tackle the problem."

Efforts to tackle climate change by the government in Northern Ireland have included progress on renewable energy, transport, and public buildings. A New Sustainable Development strategy and implementation plan will also ready in the next few months with strong measures in place to address climate change.  The Assembly Environment Committee also held an Inquiry into climate change and recently reported its recommendations.  So there is work going on in government.  As Jim stressed,

“The challenge is to broaden that work and deepen those commitments.” 

Outside of Government some interesting developments have taken place over the last 12 to 18 months, for example, the Northern Ireland Green New Deal coalition - as in the South, a broad range of representatives from the public and private community and voluntary sectors - working together to provide solutions that will help our elected representatives, benefit the entire community, kick start the local economy, and secure the transition to a more stable, low carbon economic future.  These are common goals, non party political, and locally achievable.   

“Further cooperation on an all island level to counteract the public health implications of climate change is required.  The administrations, North and South, can work with and learn from each other.  There is no need to re invent the wheel; we can work through existing structures to share thoughts and expertise and encourage research and innovation that will benefit people and communities on both sides of the border.” 

Some of the avenues which should be explored in more detail include: 

  • The British-Irish Council remit on Climate Change & Energy across the islands    
  • The existing links between the Sustainable Development Commission and Comhar – for example the successful British Council Challenge Europe projects, which have achieved real results in areas including community food initiatives, electric car advocacy and city bike schemes.     
  • The strong position of the Institute for Public Health to advocate change and partnership through its own work across the island.     
  • Further departmental links through the North South Ministerial Council.

Concluding his remarks Mr Kitchen stated:

“There are also a number of practical steps which we can also take in the here and now.  We can tailor the public health budget to provide better societal, as well as better health outcomes.  Outcomes that benefit local communities, strengthen local economies, and enhance the environment, such as the development of a ‘Good Corporate Citizenship Guide’ for health departments based on the model developed for the NHS in Britain by the Sustainable Development Commission. The guide helps organisations to put social, economic and environmental considerations at the heart of decision making and ensures that day to day activities support, rather than hinder, progress with sustainable development.  It also helps to use organisations’ purchasing power, influence, and resources to help deliver strong, healthy and sustainable communities. 

“We must also be clear that these issues do not simply belong to the ‘health’ budget or form part of ‘health’ policy – government should look to the changes which it can make across the system – in transport policy, procurement, facilities management, employment and skills, the built environment, and in community engagement.  Much of this work is currently underway – the challenge is to bring it together, to bind outcomes across government which will maximise our public wealth as well as our public health.”


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