Published on Investing in Health

On Pope Francis’ encyclical letter, the environment and health

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Let me begin with a disclaimer.  I attended Jesuit schools as a boy and adolescent.  Belief in the sanctity of human life and the principles of social justice, which were at the core of the teaching imparted there, shaped me.  The vision and language spoken by Pope Francis, himself a Jesuit, with an emphasis on the “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable”, profoundly resonate with me.

In his much anticipated Encyclical Letter “Laudato Si” or “Praise Be to You”, Pope Francis makes a powerful statement, unifying both the spiritual and scientific dimensions of life, on one of humanity’s greatest challenges in the 21st Century: environmental destruction and climate change. 

It is a very timely reminder that the use of fossil fuels and human activity globally are destroying, sometimes irreversibly, “mother earth”, our common home.  The impact is visible everywhere in the form of contaminated air, polluted rivers and oceans, widespread deforestation, and soil erosion.  By destroying the environment through our lifestyle choices and actions, we are also contributing to climate change and its negative impact on life-sustaining cycles. Hence, we are contributing to undermine human life itself, and more ominously, to aggravate the plight of the poor and the vulnerable, who face a daily struggle to survive. 

Why does all of this matter?  Pope Francis’ Encyclical, quoting the ecological concerns of Pope Paul VI in 1971, provides a simple and clear explanation:  “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation.”

For those of us, working in public health, who believe that we have a responsibility to contribute to the improvement of human existence by promoting healthy behaviors, preventing and controlling the onset of disease, ensuring universal access to health care, and supporting the rehabilitation of the sick and the infirm, Pope Francis’ Encyclical  should challenge our conventional views

It should reinforce our understanding that the improvement of health conditions is not only about better hospital services, new medical technologies, or how we finance more efficiently health services.  Above all, we need to be mindful that unless we pay more attention to issues surrounding life conditions, including the destruction of the environment, climate change, and their linkage to poverty and ill health, our work will not achieve healthy and longer lives for all across the world.    

Indeed, as documented in a 2009 report by The Lancet Commission, climate change over the coming decades could have a disastrous effect on health conditions globally. There are both direct and indirect health risks through changing patterns of disease, water and food insecurity, vulnerable shelter and human settlements, extreme climatic events, and population growth and migration.  While vector-borne diseases will expand their reach and death toll as a result of climate change, the indirect effects on potable water, food security, and extreme climatic events are likely to have the biggest negative effect on health conditions.  And, if these risks are not mitigated by preventing the further destruction of the environment by man-made actions, they will only exacerbate existing global health inequities, particularly affecting the poorest and less developed countries, by perpetuating poverty across generations, increasing malnutrition and ill health, causing premature mortality, and raising the specter of civil conflict and war. 

Beyond scientific evidence and understanding, our resolve to do something to prevent the destruction of the natural environment and climate change, and hence their negative economic, social and health impact, can be guided by moral conviction as well.  As Pope Francis’ Encyclical challenges us to do, we need to recognize that this is an extremely serious issue, because what is at stake is human life itself, and as humans we have the obligation to defend it from various forms of debasement.  

If policies and strategies are adopted by governments to reduce emissions and other short-lived climate pollutants, and individuals and communities feel responsible for and are actively engaged in their implementation, clear and measurable economic, social, and health benefits can be achieved as shown in a 2014 WBG-report, Climate-Smart Development, and more recently, in The New Climate Economy Report.

In particular, the reduction of vulnerability to climate change, along with the reduction of health and other social vulnerabilities, can help establish economic and social conditions in countries to support the poor and disadvantaged in a sustainable way.


The Lancet Commission: Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change (2009)

Blog: Action on Climate Change Is Good for Public Health

World Bank Report: Climate-Smart Development

The New Climate Economy Report


Patricio V. Marquez

Former World Bank Group (WBG) Lead Public Health Specialist

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