COP28’s inaugural Health Day was reflective of a growing recognition for the intersections of health and climate issues. The ongoing triple planetary crisis (the intersecting crises of pollution, climate crisis and biodiversity loss) has and will continue to put undue stress on human health as fragile health systems around the world grapple with increased demand for care and resources. The University of Edinburgh offers several courses focused on health and climate intersections to prepare students to acknowledge these interlinkages.

Climate-driven changes will increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events that cause injury, displacement, discontinuity of existing health care, and loss of life. Meanwhile, the release of pollutants and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere increases levels of air pollution like particulate matter that drive illnesses like asthma, bronchitis and cardiovascular diseases. The overall threat of climate change and climate-related disasters contribute to eco-anxiety, PTSD and increased rates of suicide and depression as well. It will become increasingly important that professionals are prepared to recognize and handle these challenges. Students in these courses are being equipped with the knowledge, skills, and mindset needed to address these pressing challenges effectively.

Explore below to learn more about each course.

Healthy Eating for People and Planet (VETS08016)

New this year, Healthy Eating for People and Planet was created to provide students with a clear, evidence-based understanding of healthy, sustainable diets and food systems. With information abounding about diets and climate change in the media, Healthy Eating for People and Planet imparts Year 1 and 2 students with a perspective that is grounded in nutritional and environmental science. Food and diets are key determinants of individual and population-level health and navigating the global food system has been made more complex from threat of climate change disruptions, economic inequalities, and nutrition transitions.

“There’s a bidirectional relationship between nutrition and climate change,” said Sarah Frank, PhD, SM, a nutritional epidemiologist, lecturer in data-driven innovation in nutrition and health in the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems, and the course organizer. “The way that we eat contributes to climate change – for example, food systems account for approximately 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Many nutritious foods also have a lower environmental impact.

“So, there’s an opportunity to capitalise on the synergy between foods that are nutritious and, at the same time, have a lower environmental impact than foods that currently dominate the food supply,” added Frank.

This course examines human nutrition science including macro and micro nutrients, digestion, and metabolism, nutritional epidemiology, dietary guidelines, social and cultural aspects of eating, nutrition inequities, and the linkages between climate and the food system. Students will learn to think critically about different solutions and what the implications of any trade-offs may be.

“I hope that the students come away feeling confident they can eat a diet that is healthy and sustainable, as well as delicious and easily fits into their lifestyle,” reflected Frank.

Nature, Greenspace and Health (SHSS10010):

How does access to nature and to greenspaces impact on human health? Being outdoors in a green space and connecting with nature has been shown to be good for human health across a wide range of studies, according to Alette Willis, PhD, MSc, a senior lecturer and Chancellor’s Fellow in counselling, psychotherapy and applied social science, and the course organizer.

The Nature, Greenspace and Health course takes a living labs approach to study the ways in which gardens, parks, flora, fauna, and biodiversity may impact the health of humans and human communities. In living labs, students focus on doing research to solve real-world problems. Past years of the course included completing research to support the University’s biodiversity strategy and the Hedgehog-Friendly campus working group. Students will use a social justice lens to examine how access and engagement with nature and the outdoors is unequally distributed within communities and how environmental injustice may contribute to the observed correlation between social inequality and health inequality.

Nature, Greenspace and Health has been running for five years as a Year 3 course for students in the School of Health in Social Science.

Students in this course will gain the “opportunity to make a difference to their university community, while gaining academic credit,” Willis said. “It also provides them with hands-on experience with research before they go into their fourth year and have a dissertation to complete.”

Changing Climate, Changing Health (EFIE11221):

The climate emergency is a health emergency. The changing climate across the globe is impacting health directly through the immediate effects of adverse weather conditions causing illness, injury, and death, through ecosystem mediated effects including vector-borne diseases, water-borne diseases, mental health challenges, and malnutrition, and through socially mediated effects such as increased poverty, migration, and conflict.

New this year, Changing Climate, Changing Health aims to empower postgraduate students in the Edinburgh Futures Institute with the expertise and interdisciplinary skills needed to effectively address the intersection of climate change and public health. Erika Warnatzsch, PhD, MSc, the co-programme Director of the MSc in Carbon Management degree, is the course organizer. She previously spoke as panellist in the Earth Initiative’s Catalysing Change: Health & Climate Action event in November 2023.

Not only will the health gains of the last 50 years be undermined as the severity of adverse climate events increase, but the very nature and types of diseases will change, with new emerging infections, antimicrobial resistance, and heightened likelihood of further pandemics. Addressing these health risks requires a comprehensive approach that combines mitigation, adaptation, and public health strategies to build resilience and protect communities from the impacts of the climate emergency, according to Warnatzsch.

A central focus of the course will be on strategies to identify and build co-benefits from mitigation and adaptation interventions which simultaneously improve health outcomes and contribute to net zero targets. Strategies that provide co-benefits range from active transport infrastructure to greenspace initiatives. They simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote physical activity, improve air quality, and contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation in towns and cities.

“I hope students will take away a comprehensive understanding of the links between climate change and public health, as well as the skills to navigate the complexities of these interconnected challenges,” Warnatzsch noted. “I hope as well that the students will foster an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving and will emerge as informed and proactive leaders committed to promoting the health and well-being of communities in the face of a changing climate.”

Embracing the Climate-Health Nexus

Given the many moving parts associated with our changing climate, it may be easy to overlook health and well-being considerations. Yet, the triple planetary crisis’s impact on health is increasing. We can no longer view climate and health as distinct fields. Health practitioners will have to incorporate climate considerations into public health care, and individuals involved in climate work will not be able to ignore the reverberations global change has on human health. Students interested in learning more about the intersections of health and climate are encouraged to explore these course options and initiate this topic of conversation with their own lecturers and classmates.