It is no longer a luxury to make our economy low-carbon and sustainable. It’s a matter of preventing harm to the species who dwell on the Earth, including our own. Just as an ailing patient can recover, so can an ailing planet. But we must act now. [page 5]

Changing Planet, Changing Health by Paul Epstein and Dan Ferber is an excellent book on the connection between the environment and human health. Even if you aren’t convinced by the planetary science background behind human-caused climate change, this book presents a compelling argument that the actions needed for ecological reasons must also be taken to address health issues.

To maintain and improve human health, we must choose solutions that address all four of the great crises of our time—the global food crisis, the energy crisis, the economic crisis, and climate change. What’s more, we need to do it in a way that is fair to everyone, including the world’s poor. This seems like a daunting task. The good news is that solutions that address these multiple crises are available. [page 281]

I appreciate reading a book based on the fact that these problems are interconnected instead of denying it. There are plenty of books that explain the existence of anthropogenic climate change and other manmade environmental problems, some of which propose a partial solution to one of these problems. Changing Planet, Changing Health is a good addition because it uses systems thinking to show the connection between multiple problems, as well as greatly expanding the coverage of health implications. This is particularly needed after the popularity of books—such as Bjørn Lomborg’s awful Cool It—which are based on trying to disconnect these issues.

Changing Planet, Changing Health centers on describing the health impacts of climate change, but also includes proposed solutions. In the section on solutions, I was introduced me to a historical parallel that I was unaware of:

In the mid-nineteenth century, when London treated the River Thames like an open sewer, a seemingly never-ending epidemic of epidemics plagued the city. Public health reformers sought citywide authority for massive public works projects to clean up the water supply and dispose safely of sewage. Many Londoners resisted, protesting that an invasive government would threaten their rights as individuals and communities to make their own decisions about waste removal. The reformers won the battle; drinking water was piped in and treated, and modern sanitation systems were installed in cities throughout the developed world. The generations that followed lived longer and healthier lives. [page 293]

This is an apt comparison. We currently treat the atmosphere as a nearly open sewer, with spotty regulations of what and how much can be released into it. It is no longer common to hear arguments against the existence of public utilities for water and sewer, but we are bombarded with the same individual rights argument whenever any limitations on air pollution are discussed. It is common to hear a politician use a states’ rights argument to say that any regulation of pollution—when they admit there should be some regulation—should be at the state level; but due to the competition between states to be the most “business friendly”, this effectively means no regulation. Yet in this close parallel, we see that sometimes government action is necessary. The creation of effective municipal water plants and sewer systems are responsible for nearly eliminating many diseases from the areas with these public works, while the diseases remain common in areas with poor sanitation. Given the direct health, ecological, and climate consequences caused by polluting the atmosphere, and the current low level of activity to reduce this problem, it is reasonable to think that this is also a case where the solution must involve public actions.

Changing Planet, Changing Health easily makes it onto my short list of books you should read. If you aren’t already very familiar with the health implications of our alterations to the planet, Changing Planet, Changing Health should be at the top of your reading list. I’m not the only one to give this book a hearty recommendation, in their review on RealClimate, Jim Bouldin and Rasmus E. Benestad say:

Paul Epstein and Dan Ferber have created in this book an outstanding synthesis of climate change and human/environmental health concerns. It is born of a lifetime’s work, and addresses topics that will potentially affect a very large number of people. This is a great and needed contribution and we recommend it without reservation.

You can also listen to an interview with the authors on Sound Medicine from the Indiana University School of Medicine and WFYI Public Radio. While you are at it, it’s worth reading Chapter 8: Human Health of the Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007.


	Author = {Paul Epstein and Dan Ferber},
	Publisher = {University of California Press},
	Title = {Changing Planet, Changing Health:
	        How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It},
	Year = {2011}