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Fixing Climate Change, Obesity Requires ‘Fundamentally Transformed’ Capitalism, Says New Report

A new report from medical journal The Lancet not only urges international bodies to engage with climate change, obesity and malnutrition as a single problem, but further recommends significantly changing how corporations operate.

“These three pandemics—obesity, undernutrition, and climate change—represent The Global Syndemic that affects most people in every country and region worldwide,” the report reads, further describing the interlocked pandemics as “the paramount health challenge for humans, the environment, and our planet in the 21st century.”

Originally coined to describe the interactions of multiple diseases inside a human body, the term “syndemic” was adopted by the Commission as a term capable of unifying three public health crises, encapsulating the interrelated diagnoses and solutions proposed in the report. A syndemic, as the commission defines it, is “two or more diseases that co-occur, interact with each other and have common societal drivers.”

The concept of a Global Syndemic is developed throughout, linking extreme weather events brought on by climate change to its cascading effects on world health, or running the casuality in the other direction to analyze how taking measures to reduce obesity, such as targeting sugar and red meat, could also reduce agricultural emissions.

With 43 co-authors across clinical research, climate science (including members of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), public health and policy fields The Lancet Commission report on “The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change” focuses on large-scale systemic changes targeted at governments, big business and the public.

According to the report, the costs of inaction to the global economy are staggering. Obesity costs around $2 trillion annually in direct healthcare costs and lost economic productivity, or about the same financial damage caused by “armed violence and war,” the commission claims, further estimating that undernutrition cuts about 11 percent out of the GDPs of Africa and Asia. Inaction on climate change damage will come to eclipse both pandemics, costing between five and ten percent of global GDP.

While the Commission’s report describes a devastating and global emergency, it also outlines how policy planning can attack all three prongs of The Global Syndemic at once, taking actions that will have “double-duty” or “triple-duty” effects. Since the globalized food system causes a fifth of greenhouse-gas emissions, and drives obesity and malnutrition,  targeted reforms could mitigate all three problems at once.

Specific proposals include encoding a “right to wellbeing” in international human rights law to ensure the “rights of all people to health, adequate food, culture, and healthy environments.” The report calls for a tax on red meat and an international treaty targeting multinational food corporations, modelled after the World Health Organization’s 2005 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

But many of the report’s most radical proposals involve corporate reform. One of the biggest obstacles to the meaningful change uged in the Commission’s report is policy inertia, including “inadequate political leadership” and “strong opposition to those policies by powerful commercial interests.” The report describes a number of ways in which big businesses exert their influence on legislators and distort policy, specifically targeting manufacturers of processed food and fast food companies. “Powerful lobby forces often prevent government policy making for public good,” the Commission argues.

Describing businesses as “the engines driving The Global Syndemic,” the Commission describes how prevailing political and economic systems allow companies to privatize profits while socializing The Global Syndemic’s costs. Their recommendations to counter this trend involve a radical rethink of how businesses operate, specifically by moving away from a focus on short-term profits and growth.

The Commission also decries the transfer of public money into private hands, citing agricultural subsidies and the $5.3 trillion handed out to the fossil fuel industry every year, even as the costs from the resulting environmental damage are offloaded back on to the public. Proposed solutions include better metrics for gauging corporate effects on the environment and empowering government to reduce corporate influence on legislation.

“The dynamics of the operation conditions for businesses, and corporations in particular, must be fundamentally transformed if we expect business to contribute to the solutions for The Global Syndemic,” the report recommends.

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