Past Events

Planetary Health or Accelerate Our Extinction – We have a Choice

The 2023 Dr Wu Lien-Teh 7th Annual Public Lecture & Dr Wu Lien-Teh Award for Leadership in Public Health

About the Event

We are living in the age of Anthropocene where humanity is the driving force shaping the planet. Planetary health is emerging as a way to frame both the problem and solutions that need to be found to tackle the consequences of humanity’s actions. The ultimate consequence of continuous environmental destruction is accelerating damage to not only the health of the planet but everything that calls it home – our survival included. Humanity is now faced with some clear and stark choices, whether to recognise and act on the need for a great transition towards a sustainable future or to continue our current unsustainable trajectory.

Organisers: The Dr. Wu Lien-Teh Society and Penang Institute


About the Speaker

Professor Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood is a medical professional with more than two decades experience managing crises in health, disasters and conflict settings. She is currently Professor and Executive Director of the newly established Sunway Centre for Planetary Health at Sunway University in Malaysia. She is a member of the Malaysian Climate Action Council, the Ministry of Health Advisory Council and Consultative Council for Foreign Policy at the government of Malaysia, as well as a Senior Fellow of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Centre. Dr. Mahmood is also the Pro-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University Malaysia. She is a strong advocate of planetary health and sustainability and actively advises on Environment, Social and Governance in the advisory and board roles she holds.

She was the Special Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia on Public Health and member of the Government of Malaysia’s Economic Action Council from April 2020 September 2021. Previous appointments include the Under Secretary General for Partnerships at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Chief of the World Humanitarian Summit secretariat at the United Nations, and Chief of the Humanitarian Response Branch at UNFPA. She is the founder of MERCY Malaysia, a southern based international humanitarian organisation. A strong advocate of private-public partnerships, she has been actively engaged with partnership development and program implementation with the private sector in her current and previous roles.

She is the recipient of numerous national and international awards including the most prestigious Malaysian Merdeka Award in 2015 and the ASEAN Prize in 2019, for her contribution to peace, community development and humanitarian work. She also received the inaugural Isa Award for Humanity in 2013 from the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Gandhi-King-Ikeda Award for community development and peace building from Morehouse College, USA.

Key takeaways from the event:

1. The state of the Earth impacts human health.

2. Some of the damages that have been done to planet Earth:

  • Half of the temperate & tropical forests have been cleared
  • Biodiversity is rapidly disappearing
  • Oceans have become 30% more acidic since the Industrial Revolution
  • Soil, air, and water ecosystems are being polluted
  • Extreme weather events are wreaking havoc on communities
  • Temperatures are increasing
  • Sea levels are rising

3. Microplastics have been found in people’s bloodstream, pregnant women’s placenta, and in babies’ feces.

4. It is estimated that over 40% of the world’s population could be under severe water stress by 2050; unchecked climate-change related impacts could cause 250,000 more deaths per year; and soil degradation could lead to the loss of 1-2 million hectares of agricultural land per year.

5. The planet boundaries model, developed by Johan Rockström and other scientists in 2009, consists of 9 boundaries that must be respected to keep the planet habitable. The 9 boundaries are:

  • Climate change
  • Biosphere integrity
  • Land-system change
  • Novel entities
  • Biogeochemical flows
  • Ocean acidification
  • Atmospheric aerosol loading
  • Stratospheric ozone depletion
  • Freshwater change

6. 3 out of the 9 boundaries were breached in 2009 and at the end of 2022 another 3 were breached, thus making it a total of 6.

7. Many factors affect our health. The main determinants of health are social and environmental factors (55%), followed by behavioural factors (20%) and medical care (20%).

8. Climate change and the loss of biodiversity are affecting our health. Those include heat-related illnesses, water-borne diseases, and respiratory illnesses among others. In Malaysia, the number of death attributed to air pollution was estimated at 10,960 in 2019.

9. The costs of medical issues caused by climate change are estimated to be USD 820 million per year.

10. There is a new threat of malaria in Malaysia, in the form of monkey malaria.

11. It is estimated that antimicrobial resistance will result in about 10 million deaths per year by 2050. Asia will be the most affected.

12. Food insecurity affects 30% of the global population. In Malaysia, 25% of the population faces insufficient food quantity and variety.

13. Transforming our food systems, and reducing food wastage, can help prevent 20% or up to 10 million deaths annually and lower global greenhouse gas emissions by 38%.

14. To ensure that both humans and the planet thrive, we must focus on planetary health, a solutions-oriented approach that looks into and addresses the impact of humans’ actions on Earth’s natural systems.

Key questions and answers during the Q&A session

Question: How much should policymakers focus on adaptation versus mitigation?
Answer: In terms of climate change, the focus should be on both. Some of the mitigation efforts can include building sea walls, mapping out the areas in Malaysia that will be underwater by 2050, etc. A lot can be learned from the Netherlands. They are one of the largest food exporters despite some of its land being below sea level.

Question: The medical industry creates a lot of single uses such as plastic gloves. Plastic gloves are much cheaper than the biodegradable ones. However, they do not take into account the disposal cost of the materials.
Answer: Prices of biodegradable gloves can come down if the demand for such items increases. Policy and regulation can further help, by having for instance a policy that restricts single-use items and financial institutions that do not give loans to polluting businesses.