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Health Issues On The Margins Of UN Conference

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By Richard Johnson | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WARSAW (IDN) – They are not in the limelight. But experts are drawing attention to the human health dimension of climate change at the global climate change talks in Poland’s capital Warsaw scheduled to conclude on November 22.

Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum of the World Health Organization (WHO) has delivered “five health messages” for COP 19, the 19th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). A scientist and team leader in WHO’s Climate Change and Health Unit, Dr Campbell-Lendrum says:

Human lives are the ‘bottom line’ that needs protection from climate risks; continuing climate change is an unacceptable risk to global health; the world has made great progress in health, and is now organising to meet the climate challenge; health ‘co-benefits’ can provide motivation for mitigation; and the health sector needs to work with others.

In a paper published in the multi-stakeholder magazine ‘Outreach’, Dr Campbell-Lendrum says: “Infrastructure can be rebuilt, economies can recover, but human lives are irreplaceable. Whether it is typhoons, heatwaves, or outbreaks of infectious diseases, our first responsibility is to protect the lives of the most vulnerable. It is no surprise that surveys from around the world have shown that when people are made aware of the many connections between weather, climate and health, they place health protection at the top of their climate change concerns.”

The World Health Organization estimates that climate change is already causing over 140,000 excess deaths every year, and the latest research indicates that even if socio-economic development and medical progress continue, this burden will gradually increase in coming decades, warns Dr Campbell-Lendrum.

“Of greater concern is the potential for climate change to undermine the environmental determinants of health; air, water and food supplies; with unpredictable, but potentially severe consequences. If a patient had a temperature chart that resembled that of the planet, there would be no hesitation in intervening,” he adds.

While much remains to be done, poverty alleviation, socioeconomic development, and health programmes have combined to deliver longer life expectancies, lower burdens of infectious disease, and reduced death tolls from extreme weather events across the globe, assures the WHO scientist. At the same time, the health community is alert to the risk that climate change may slow or halt this progress.

“The health community has also been among the first to define political agreements with environmental bodies, to produce sectoral guidance on National Adaptation Plans under the UNFCCC, and to identify the key health systems functions that need to be strengthened to address climate risks. Investment of bilateral and multilateral climate funds into health adaptation – which was previously very low – has increased rapidly in recent years,” says Dr Campbell-Lendrum.

Health ‘co-benefits’

Scientists, he adds, recognise the challenge of connecting long-term, global climate change to people’s everyday priorities. In this context, quantifying and promoting the rapid, local health gains that should result from the shift away from fossil fuels is a critical piece of the puzzle.

For example, the latest research suggests that over 3.5 million people die each year from household air pollution from solid fuels, and some 3.2 million from outdoor air pollution.  Overall, this places air pollution in the top rank of global health risks, with a death toll comparable to that of tobacco smoking. There is a huge opportunity for more cost-effective, socially beneficial and widely-supported policy if the related challenges of air quality, energy security and climate change are addressed together, explains the WHO scientist.

He stresses the need for the health sector to work with others and explains: “Health workers are often described as being on the front-line in protecting human lives. It may be more accurate to say that they are the last line of defence – many of the most important decisions that affect health occur in other sectors, determining our exposure to environmental risks, and our vulnerabilities. For this reason, true disease prevention is intersectoral.”

Dr Campbell-Lendrum informs that WHO is supporting its partners in Ministries of Health to play their appropriate roles in defining national climate change policies, and working with key sectors, such as water and sanitation, nutrition, and energy supply, to increase climate resilience and promote healthy mitigation policies. WHO is also a partner in global initiatives such as the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, and the Global Framework on Climate Services.

Health summit

On the side-lines of COP19, the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA) pleaded for creating a strong alliance between health and climate change. GCHA’s Leena Hasan and Nick Watts pointed out that in 2009, the University College London (UCL)-Lancet Commission had stated that ‘climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.’

GCHA was established to tackle climate change for the sake of protecting and promoting public health. It is made up of leading health organisations working together to ensure that health impacts are integrated into global, national and local responses to climate change and to encourage the health sector to mitigate and adapt for climate change.

At the one-day Summit on November 16, GCHA provided delegates with the latest evidence, and aligned both the health and non-health communities to coordinate efforts on a roadmap to 2015. Also included in the programme were expert-led discussions on the co-benefits of climate change mitigation to health, and discussions by national delegates from the least developed countries on lessons learned from their health national adaptation plans to build resilience to climate change.

GCHA was launched following the inaugural Climate and Health Summit, which took place during the UNFCCC’s COP 17 in 2011 in Durban, South Africa. The alliance was established to tackle climate change for the sake of protecting and promoting public health. It is made up of leading Health organisations working together to ensure that health impacts are integrated into global, national and local responses to climate change and to encourage the health sector to mitigate and adapt for climate change.

Drawing on the 2011 Durban Health Sector Call to Action, the summit built a roadmap for the international health community in the run up to the 2015 climate negotiations in Paris, which consists of six major actions to tackle climate change:

- Provide leadership: to drive the agenda for climate and health, promoting this Call to Action throughout the world.

- Engage and inform: to engage and inform constituencies of millions of doctors, nurses, public health workers, hospitals, health systems and health policy makers about the health risks from climate change, and the health benefits of climate action. As health professionals, to also serve as messengers to their patients, communities and governments about the major health impacts of climate change and the steps they can take to reverse their impact.

- Mitigate: To lead by example and reduce the carbon footprint of their own institutions, practice and activities. To strive to make our hospitals greener and healthier by reducing waste, investing in energy efficiency and clean energy sources, while promoting sustainable transport and resource consumption. By doing so, commit to demonstrating how our societies can move toward carbon neutrality.

- Adapt: To strive to make health systems more resilient and capable of withstanding and responding to the human toll of natural disasters and the shifting burden of disease.

- Advocate locally and nationally: To work within their countries to advocate for emissions reductions and/or low-carbon development strategies that promote both a healthy climate and public health. To call for solutions that reduce the local health impacts of fossil fuels; solutions that foster clean energy and social justice; solutions that save lives and money while protecting public health from climate change.

- Advocate globally: To advocate for a fair and binding global agreement, as articulated in the Durban Declaration on Climate and Health. Leena Hasan and Nick Watts hope to engage new members to join in this commitment as progress is made towards creating a roadmap to the 2015 climate negotiations that puts health front and centre. [IDN-InDepthNews – November 18, 2013]

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Image credit: Stakeholderforum

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