The climate crisis is increasingly becoming a public health crisis, officials warned in New York this week, calling for better training, research, and resilience measures to tackle the twin priorities in the spotlight at the UN General Assembly.
Combating climate change and improving public health are key aims of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, as governments try to find a path forward on the 17 headline targets, with only 15 per cent of them on track in a crisis-hit world.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an additional 250,000 people are projected to die each year due to climate change, while statistics show that one in four deaths can be chalked up to “preventable environmental causes”.
The UN agency says rising temperatures, extreme weather, air pollution, wildfires, and less secure water and food supplies not only lead to lost lives but also exacerbate infectious and other diseases, provoke heat-related illnesses, and harm pregnant women.
“Make no mistake: it is the use of fossil fuels that is driving climate change that is killing us,” Vanessa Kerry, WHO’s special envoy for climate change and health, told an event held as part of Climate Week NYC.
For the first time this year, the annual UN climate summit - COP28, starting in late November in Dubai - will have a day dedicated to health, as well as a ministerial discussion on the theme of climate and health.
“The connection between health and climate change is evident, yet it has not been a specific focus of the COP process - until now. This must change,” Sultan al-Jaber, an oil executive who will chair COP28 for the UAE, said in a statement.
Poverty, women’s rights affected
The negative effects caused by the confluence of climate and health threats are threatening to undermine other key planks in the sustainable development agenda too, including cutting poverty and promoting women’s rights, experts warned.
The World Bank projects that up to 132 million people will fall into poverty by 2030 as a result of climate-related health effects and up to 1.2 billion people will be displaced by 2050.
Make no mistake: it is the use of fossil fuels that is driving climate change that is killing us.
Vanessa Kerry, special envoy for climate change and health, World Health Organization
Maliha Khan, president and CEO of the advocacy group Women Deliver, emphasised that the burden of adapting to climate change frequently falls on girls and women, who might be pulled out of school or have to take on more work when male members of the family migrate due to climate pressures.
Khan called for full sexual reproductive rights and health services to help women cope with climate-change ripple effects.
“From a purely justice point of view, we cannot fail them by also then denying them the services that will allow them to become more resilient (to) the face of the climate crisis,” she told another event on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
Pascal Barollier, chief engagement and information officer for Gavi, the global health group that works to expand vaccine access, pointed to heat having an impact on the incidence of vector-borne diseases, as well as yellow fever in Africa.
He called for additional research on the links between climate shifts and health.
“It’s good to have strong narratives about the link between climate and health, but if we cannot really measure the (impact) it will be harder to justify” investments, he said.
From a rise in dengue fever in South Asia to the spread of West Nile virus in West Africa and Europe, scientists are concerned about the shifting profile of mosquito-borne diseases as average temperatures rise in many parts of the world.
The healthcare sector itself, which accounts for about 5 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions, also needs to shrink its carbon footprint and adapt as demand and pressures grow, the WHO’s Kerry said.
“It starts by investing in a healthcare workforce that can meet this growing burden of disease that we’re going to see,” she added.
Health charities and other groups are in the process of standing up new programs to address negative health impacts related to climate and to educate people on the connections.
Americares, the global health group, has partnered with Harvard University to better prepare community health clinics that frequently take on lower-income and uninsured patients who are often hit hard by climate extremes like heat.
At a Climate Week NYC event, officials announced they are launching a pilot initiative aimed at making health clinics in Arizona, Florida, and Louisiana more climate-resilient through heat action plans to help them support vulnerable people.
“The health threats posed by extreme heat are only worsening due to climate change, and we must focus on solutions that extend beyond and complement the care provided in the exam room,” said Julie Varughese, Americares’ chief medical officer.
Growing awareness and attention to the interaction between climate and health have been clearly on show at the UN this week, laying the groundwork for the UAE’s plan to put health front and center at COP28.
“Surprisingly, I’ve been at Gavi more than a decade now, and it is really the first year that we seem to be truly making the connection between climate change and health,” Barollier said.
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