Attendees at the Congress on Poverty and Health in Berlin pose for a group photo (Photo: Anja Leetz)

Attendees at the Congress on Poverty and Health in Berlin pose for a group photo (Photo: Anja Leetz)

Anja Leetz - Only systemic change can ensure our collective survival

Former executive director of Health Care Without Harm Europe reflects on the #Fridays4Future strike and the need for action

I have long been concerned about our planet and all its species, but children and students going on the #Fridays4Future strikes shows so clearly that we adults are failing our kids. Only systemic change can ensure our collective survival.

Twenty-two years ago, when I found out that the breast milk I was feeding my precious little baby was contaminated with man-made chemicals, I changed my life and career. From being a teacher and photographer, I went on to work on changing the law in Europe to ensure that chemicals in everyday products are safe. The "no data, no market" standard and the precautionary principle guided our work. Without data, we cannot evaluate the risk a chemical poses for humans and the environment and put risk minimisation measures in place.

After the chemical proposal became law in 2006, I focused on other environmental challenges and how they impact our health. Climate change, air pollution, pharmaceuticals in the environment, mercury, and nanomaterials were just some of the subjects I covered, but climate change with all its consequences stands out as showing us that we cannot ignore science.  Climate change is real, telling us that our systems are inadequate and that major changes in all sectors and policies across the whole of society are needed.

Through my work over the last 20 years, I have been using the existing mechanisms of democracy, including the E.U. legislative and U.N. voluntary processes, to turn the tide against environmental pollution and degradation. However, in all those years the data has been going in the wrong direction. Environmental degradation and pollution continues: every year the global greenhouse gas emissions increase, and the last five years have been the hottest since measurements began. Biodiversity and species loss is continuing, coral reefs are dying, floods, heat waves, and storms are increasing and being experienced even in Europe. The incremental steps and the small successes we have had over the years are insufficient and even make it clear how difficult it is to turn the corner. The world continues to sleepwalk into catastrophe.

These days I am focussing on national work and contributing my experience in strategic and organisational development and communication to support the German Association for Climate Change and Health. Several of us shared our knowledge on planetary health at the conference for care professionals and the Congress on Poverty and Health in Berlin recently and joined all the marching children and students afterwards.

When a person is diagnosed with a disease, change and adaptation are crucial to regaining health. The same reasoning should be applied to climate change. Doctors and health workers are calling for a declaration of a climate change emergency, acknowledging that addressing climate change being is absolutely necessary for the protection of health.

Professor Gölpel from the German government’s Advisory Council on Global Change stated recently that the irreversibility of changes in ecological systems has not yet been fully grasped. This applies to many, from individual citizens through to decision makers in politics and business. But the children and students who are skipping school and lectures each Friday have understood, and more adults are joining their protest.

We need climate and health experts, communication experts and many others to contribute to transformational change across society and across countries. Huge interventions are needed to avoid the climate crisis. Be part of the growing movement of parents, teachers, and scientists for the future.

Anja Leetz is a member of the 2018 Sciana cohort. She is the former executive director of Health Care Without Harm Europe. In this role, she worked closely with European institutions and national members on legislation related to the environment and health, and collaborated with the organisation's global network on climate and health issues.