Health summit to show bold climate action will save lives

Intro

The World Health Organisation is today welcoming government ministers, health practitioners and climate change experts to Geneva to discuss the the health risks of climate change. The headline topic will be the need to tackle the devastating effects of burning fossil fuels on the climate and on health. The worst offender is burning coal, which releases pollutants associated with a range of human health problems including asthma and cancer. The WHO has identified air pollution as a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths, estimating that it is already causes 7 million deaths worldwide. Dr Margaret Chan, head of the WHO, today deemed air pollution the “largest single environmental health risk” the world faces. And media reports published today on the leaked drafts of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, likewise confirm that moving away from fossil fuels means a healthier climate and cleaner air. Global health is also being affected by the impacts of climate change including extreme weather, infectious diseases and food and water shortages. The poorest and most vulnerable populations are suffering most and this trend will get worse as temperatures rise.  As climate change moves again to the top of the international political agenda in the run up the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in New York next month, health experts are signally that bold action on climate change is the responsible way forward for a healthy public and a healthier public purse.

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Key Points

  • The WHO climate summit is taking place at a critical time in the fight against climate change. The outcome of this week’s summit will inform the work of the WHO, doctors and governments in the months and years to come. It will also have a wider reach, feeding – along with recommendations from other sectors – into the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in New York next month.Together, medical experts, religious leaders and progressive business are building a clear case for a faster transition away from fossils and towards clean renewables. The pressure is now on government leaders to acknowledge this and act accordingly in New York and ultimately agree a strong global climate agreement at the 2015 UN talks in Paris.

Background

Climate change is again moving to the top of the political agenda in the run up to the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in New York next month, which will set the ball rolling for the UN talks in Paris in 2015 at which world leaders are expected to agree a new global climate agreement. In order to influence these discussions, various sectors have decided to hold meetings, the conclusions of which will feed into the UN summits. The first of these meetings is being held this week by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland.

In 2009, the prestigious medical journal the Lancet and UCL published a major report on the health effects of climate change, which concluded that climate change is the biggest global-health threat of the 21st century. One of the main contributors to this is the combustion of fossil fuels that is largely driving climate change and is also a major contributor to air pollution.

The clear link between air pollution, climate change and health has been amply demonstrated by various reports. Not least the recent Europe’s Dirty 30 report, which showed how the EU’s outdated reliance on dirty coal is bad for climate and health, and the The Unpaid Health Bill report from the Health and Environmental Alliance (HEAL). This concluded that coal power plants are causing ill-health in Europeans worth €43 billion each year by contributing to higher rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, among other killer diseases.

The WHO has also drawn attention to the ways that climate change affects the social and environmental determinants of health, namely clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter. Further, many of the world’s major killers such as diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, malaria and dengue are highly climate-sensitive and are expected to worsen as the climate changes. Areas with weak health infrastructure – mostly in developing countries – will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond. The most recent IPCC report is also clear about the effects of climate change on health and warns that they will worsen if climate change is allowed to spiral out of control.

In a briefing based on the conclusions of the IPPC report, the Global Climate and Health Alliance highlighted some of the impacts climate change is projected to have on human health. These include bumping up food prices, causing the number of children under five who are undernourished to increase by 20-25 million globally by 2050. Likewise, in Australia, the number of “dangerously hot” days, when core body temperatures may increase by 2°C or more, threatening health, is projected to rise from the current four to six days per year, to as high as 33 to 45 days per year by 2070. And a report published last year by CAN Europe showed that even in more temperate Europe, climate change is already negatively affecting health with 70,000 people dying in the region because of the 2003 heat-wave.

Resources

Coverage

6 ways climate change threatens health – and one way it probably doesn’t (RTCC)

Media

Tools and Resources

WHO climate conference

  1. Health and Climate Conference – Plenary (27.08.14)
  2. Health and Climate Conference – Parallel Session – Strengthening health resilience to climate change (28.0814)
  3. Health and Climate Conference – Promoting health while mitigating climate change (28.08.14)
  4. Health and Climate Conference – Plenary (29.08.14)

Related resources

Key Quotes

  • “Reducing greenhouse gases produces unplanned, but very beneficial side effects for health. As the levels of harmful gases and pollutants in the air fall, major improvements in cardiopulmonary health, including asthma, bronchitis and stroke, take place. HEAL’s work over the past few years has resulted in health co-benefits becoming an important argument in EU climate policy. The US and Chinese governments have already embraced the message of better health in support of their recent actions against pollution from coal power plants. We hope that the health co-benefits model will be used more extensively to drive up national climate targets in all regions of the world.” – Genon Jensen, HEAL Executive Director
  • “We welcome the conference as an opportunity to debate and make climate and environmental sustainability issues mainstream in health systems and health services. We urge participants to take on the responsibility of proposing strategic actions that will encourage the health sector to play a leading role in addressing climate change and develop a concrete and systematic approach to health protection, in collaboration with national and international efforts. A strong signal has to be sent to policy makers, before the upcoming UN Climate Summit in September, that climate change and health need to be addressed urgently on a global scale.” – Kornelia Bagi, Climate Policy & Membership Officer, Health Care Without Harm Europe
  • “The WHO meeting is an opportunity to help galvanise the health and medical community globally to advocate more strongly for policies and programmes to cut emissions, given the significant health impacts from unchecked global warming. It also offers national political and community leaders an insight into the compelling evidence that curbing greenhouse gases in order to limit further climate change can bring immediate and significant local health benefits. The leadership from the World Health Organisation in convening this conference is welcome and timely. The health of people everywhere is being affected by the actions of polluting industries that are failing to reduce the production of harmful greenhouse gases and by governments that are failing to impose a penalty on high emitting activities. For the sake of people’s health, it is time we decided as a global community that enough is enough. We must insist that health is protected as a fundamental human right. This WHO conference on climate and health is an important opportunity to highlight this issue.” – Dr Liz Hanna, president of the Climate and Health Alliance, Australia
  • “Coal is the most hazardous energy source to produce. For example, over 60 times more people suffer accidental death producing coal versus onshore wind power. This is why health organizations such as Physicians for the Environment urge a swift coal phase-out and the rapid deployment of low-cost renewable energy.” – Gideon Forman, Executive Director, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment
  • “As medical students involved in the IFMSA, we are concerned by the devastating health impacts of climate change on human populations around the world. We will be present at the WHO Conference on Climate and Health to speak out for the youth and to call for meaningful and sustainable actions for our healthy future.” – Claudel P-Desrosiers, President, International Federation of Medical Students’ Association, Quebec Chapter
  • “Climate change has negatively impacted human health in a multitude of ways that continue to unfold before us. Focusing on the health benefits of pollution reduction is critical for successfully driving policy changes that will ensure resiliency worldwide.”  – Laura Anderko, holder of the Robert and Kathleen Scanlon Endowed Chair in Values -Based Health Care,  Center for Social Justice, and Robert Wood Johnson, Executive Nurse 
  • “Climate change is quickly being recognized as the biggest public health crisis of our time. Air pollution from burning coal adds to the devastating health effects of climate change as clean air is essential to health and wellbeing. Without action to address these issues we will continue to see signifiant health impacts, such as cancer, premature death, respiratory diseases, and increases in vector borne diseases and vulnerable populations will bear the brunt of these impacts.” – Katie Huffling, Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments
  • “The health sector has led the worldwide move away from tobacco, lead in gasoline and other harmful products. It is now time for us to help lead a rapid transition from unhealthy fossil fuels to healthy, clean renewable energy in order to protect public health from local air pollution and global climate change.” Josh Karliner, Director Global Projects, Health Care Without Harm.

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More Tweets

  • MT ‏@CCACoalition Follow Health and Climate conference live: http://ow.ly/ALtMl @WHO #healthandclimate
  • MT @WHO WHO calls for stronger action on climate-related health risks. http://goo.gl/15tMLD  #ClimateAndHealth
  • RT @WHO Dr Chan: Debates about #climate change are still not giving sufficient attention to profound effects that climate variables have on health
  • MT @CFigueres @WHO Conference on Health & Climate http://bit.ly/1wrSW1I. Concern grows in health community about #climate impacts
  • MT @GenonHEAL WHO Dr Chan says air pollution largest single env health risk.