Concerns about the health impacts of climate change are growing.
Climate change has very significant implications for public health and the topic is climbing higher on the international agenda.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and France recently co-hosted the Second Global Conference on Health & Climate in close collaboration with Morocco.
Morocco will be the host country of the next major UN climate conference in November, which will focus on how the 2015 Paris climate change agreement will be implemented.
A health and climate action agenda
The global health and climate conference co-hosted by the World Health Organization and France resulted in an action agenda.
The action agenda confirms how important it is that the health community understands the implications of climate change and strengthens its voice as an advocate for stronger action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to unavoidable change.
One of the main messages from the conference is that “ …. a fundamental shift towards disease prevention, protection of ecosystem services, sustainability, equity, and alignment with other aspects of sustainable development” is needed to meet the challenge, rather than incremental change.
In other words, overcoming the current challenges will require much more than business as usual – including for the health community.
Health specialists need to be at the forefront when it comes to raising awareness of what climate change means for health and making sure that health systems adapt.
For example, Medact’s 2014 report “Climate change: health impacts and opportunities” identified actions such as: working to reduce the contribution health systems make to climate change; increasing their resilience; expanding research; creating synergies with equitable development; engaging in advocacy; and building a global partnership of health professionals.
One of the key points on the action agenda from the global conference is to “[e]nhance sustainable, lower carbon and health promoting food systems”. This is one of the main topics at the Healthy Planet Better World conference, which Medact and partners are convening on 9 – 10 December in London.
Unfair impacts and the flaw in the Paris agreement
According to the World Health Organization climate change is expected to cause around 250,000 additional deaths each year between 2030 and 2050 from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. The direct damage costs to health (excluding costs in health-determining sectors such as agriculture and water and sanitation) will be an estimated USD 2-4 billion per year by 2030.
Areas with weak health infrastructure, mainly in developing countries, will be the least able to cope. Children – in particular, children in poor countries – are among the most vulnerable. This is a global injustice.
Many welcomed the 2015 Paris climate agreement. However, it has a fundamental flaw: it is based on individual countries choosing what actions to take to combat climate change, with little incentive to strengthen those actions.
The continuing international negotiations about the Paris agreement might result in stronger rules for review of countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). In turn, this could lead to stronger action to reduce emissions – but that remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the world remains on a dangerous path towards more climate change. The most vulnerable will suffer the harshest impacts.
This makes it even more important for the health community to act.
Will the health community meet the challenge?
The action agenda from the global conference is a challenge to the health sector. It recognises that mobilising the health community to advocate for action on climate change is essential and that the health community can use “…. its trusted voice and massive strength …”.
The health community can be a formidable, positive agent of change. Many health specialists have understood the game-changing nature of climate change and the importance of responding, but others have yet to appreciate the fundamental changes climate change is causing and how this will affect the health sector. It is time for everyone to get on board.
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Read more about Medact’s climate change work here.