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Going beyond Environmental Education: Planetary Health Learning in the Health Sector

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

By Marisol Yglesias-González

Since 1972, every January 26th, we celebrate World Environmental Education Day. This date commemorates the importance of having baseline values and principles that act as the compass of humanity towards protecting and taking care of the planet. The participation and involvement of environmental education in multiple academic and professional sectors is a pressuring need, especially as we are seeing more impacts on human health due to the converging crisis of climate change and COVID-19 but also, with the on-going degradation of our Mother Earth caused by unsustainable development models.

Voices of professionals of different sectors are appointing towards the need for systematic changes and new development paradigms that consider planetary limits. This has come especially from the health sector, as the environmental risks and climate events proper from the Anthropocene epoch, are translating into more visits to the hospital and generating a public health burden. It is key that the health sector continues to advocate for their patients but also, it is essential for them to have the educational tools, early in their academic life, to be able to address the challenges ahead.

In general, the health sector has strong credibility. Doctors and nurses are highly trusted. This reliability makes them a relevant advocacy collective to make visible the effects of environmental pollution and a changing climate. Health professionals have a powerful voice, both to educate patients and to call for environmental protection and climate action.

The reality faced by clinicians when dealing with patients affected by environmental issues, stresses the importance of being academically prepared in Environmental Health topics and in the emerging field of Planetary Health. Also, the challenges underline the need for future professionals to be equipped on the environmental impacts that health systems have, on the climate resilience that is needed in hospital management, and on developing an integral perspective that allows them to link potential environmental exposures with health issues. Efforts to integrate a Planetary Health leadership within Medical Schools are starting to flourish and other academic areas and sectors should start to echo that vision.

Traditional views on Environmental Education could be perceived as if this field is to be addressed with children mainly, if not exclusively. Yet, the education should engage students with continuity along their entire academic path, including higher education. This is where Environmental Education should envision more than the conventional topics of environmental challenges, quality, and degradation. This is where going beyond

Environmental Education is an opportunity to introduce a new concept: that humans are not above nature, and that nature is not above humans: we are intertwined in a very fragile balance and this is what the health sector is already starting to give visibility to.

The emerging field of Planetary Health offers the opportunity to go beyond this scope and takes it the extra mile: to educate and sensitize on the dependence the human civilization has on the health of the natural systems of our Mother Earth.

Today, in the World Environmental Education Day, let´s get inspired by the example of the health sector and medical students, envision the legacy that Planetary Health could bring if embedded throughout the academic journey, and take action towards influencing curricular designs in every career to pave the way for a green recovery and sustainable future.

About the Author: Marisol Yglesias is a professional in Environmental Health from the University of Costa Rica and has master's degree in International Health from the Institute of Tropical Medicine and International Health of Charité - Berlin Medical University. Marisol has worked on environmental management issues for the Costa Rican Ministry of Health, has been consultant for the WHO Regional Office for Europe in topics of Sustainable Development Goals, climate change and health. She has also worked on environmental and public health projects with Doctors Without Borders in Latin America, Asia and Africa. She is currently doing a post-doctorate with the Lancet Countdown South America, is part of the Leadership Committee of PlaHNet, a network of young professionals in Planetary Health and is advisor of the Regional Consultation of the Americas on Climate Change and Health of the WHO and the GCHA.

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