Disarmament for Climate Justice and Health: reflections and direction following COP28 

Back in December, the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), better known as COP28, hosted an unprecedented assembly of health delegates – setting a historic benchmark. I attended the conference as part of a delegation from International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), of which Medact is the UK affiliate. Over 1900 health professionals observed a landmark inaugural ‘Health Day’ at the conference. With the goal of Disarmament for Climate Justice and Health, IPPNW and Medact participated at COP28 to ensure human and environmental health was at the center of decision making. Here are some key highlights from the conference, and considerations of the path towards disarmament for health and climate justice. 

Dr Bimal Khadka and Dr. Angelika Claussen representing IPPNW at COP28 

COP28’s new themes: ‘Health’ & ‘Relief, Recovery and Peace’

These two new themes were milestones for the climate conference. It has taken 27 years to see a dedicated Health Day, which saw 141 parties decide priority actions for health systems responses to climate change, financing commitments for implementation, and endorse the ‘Health–Climate declaration’. Other key events from the conference were the establishment of Loss and Damage funds for countries vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Additionally, the UAE consensus signified an agreement from all parties to transition away from fossil fuels. However, the consensus lacked concrete actions to phase out fossil fuels, or recognition of the carbon footprint of militarisation and the ongoing global proliferation of arms – including massive investments in nuclear weapons.

Certainly, the crises we face are urgent and require such action. However, commitments of the conference focused on response to catastrophes. For example, COP28’s Declaration on Climate, Relief, Recovery and Peace included a “package of solutions”, seeking to mobilise climate action in countries affected by conflict & strengthen partnerships to improve disaster preparedness, early warning systems, and climate resilience. These commitments unfortunately came without agreement on actions to reduce carbon emissions – one crucial contributor being global military emissions.

Disarmament for Climate Justice 

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and IPPNW organised a crucial action to address the elephant in the room – the military-industrial complex. Since the 1997 Kyoto protocol, there has been no mandatory recording of any military emissions, from flying jets, to sailing ships, to undertaking fuel intensive training exercises. From organisations like IPPNW, there was a strong call for demilitarization, decolonisation, an end to occupations, and peace for social, health and climate justice.

What are the facts? And what are our demands?

  1. Military greenhouse gas emissions accelerate climate breakdown, posing a severe threat to health and the climate. Military activity is estimated to contribute 5.5 % of global greenhouse gas emissions. Research in 2017 found that US defense operations produced more carbon emissions than the entire states of Sweden or Portugal in the same year. Militaries must be included in future negotiations and under the binding reporting of the UNFCCC to meet the 1.5°C threshold.
  1. The global arms race threatens health and the climate. In 2022, world military expenditure rose to $2240 billion, with $82.9 billion spent on nuclear weapons alone. Disarmament and demilitarisation are vital areas for global divestment in service of financing climate mitigation and ensuring human security. A recent report found that the $1.26 trillion of NATO’s military spending in 2023 would cover the most polluting nations’ unfulfilled promise of climate financing of $100 billion a year for 12 years, or African countries’ climate adaptation and mitigation for four years. We need global, multilateral divestment from arms manufacturing and militarisation, and the economic prioritisation of climate responses.  
  1. Nuclear power is a dead end in the search for clean energy. In the face of the climate crisis, some are propagating a supposedly simple carbon-free way out: nuclear energy. But in fact, nuclear power is expensive and unreliable, it lags behind renewables in terms of cost-effectiveness and output, and remains dangerous. There are radiotoxic consequences and health risks along the entire fuel chain, from the uranium pit to final storage. We need an immediate cessation of new-build, and decommissioning of existing nuclear power stations, and focused investment in renewable energy as part of a just transition away from fossil fuels. 
  1. Nuclear weapons pose an acute health threat to the planet and all its life forms. Nuclear weapons pose an acute existential threat to human and environmental health. A so-called “limited” nuclear war would have global catastrophic climate consequences. A new study by IPPNW shows that in the case of nuclear war between India and Pakistan, using less than 3% of the world’s nuclear arsenals could kill up to every 3rd person on earth. Climate agreements should urge all governments to join the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the earliest possible date.

In conclusion, though the Health & Relief, Recovery and Peace days opened a tremendous platform to the health community for a strong medical voice on the climate crisis, we must take collaborative action, engaging in intergenerational work to raise awareness of the need for nuclear disarmament, demilitarisation and peace for climate and health justice.

Join Medact’s Nuclear Weapons Group, sign up to the mailing list, or attend our next meeting, to support our work towards nuclear disarmament through evidence-based campaigning.

This accompanies an opinion piece in BMJ, “Disarmament is vital for climate justice and health”, which was published on 19th January 2024.