The Role of Health in Climate Conferences
Written by Alice Guo – BCCIC Youth Delegate to COP 24
When we think of health, we often think about our family doctor’s office or the fitbit that is nestled on our wrist. Rarely, do we immediately think about climate change.
How could the seemingly complex, broad, and abstract idea of climate change be influencing our health and wellbeing? And with its influence, how does the health sector fit into climate action?
The Health Impacts of Climate Change
Climate change and health are undeniably interconnected.
7 million people die prematurely every year from air pollution (WHO COP24 Special Report). The same number of people die prematurely from tobacco use (NCD Alliance). While tobacco use condemnation is widely applauded, we are often caught in tit for tat discussions and face sharp criticism when we advocate for more ambitious climate action. The 70+ years spent battling contradicting evidence between tobacco companies and the scientific community have costed at least 5 billion lives. “How many lives is it going to take for [the climate change community] to wake up?” chimed a young Brazilian climate activist during the last hours of COP24 in front of a dimly lit room where world leaders gathered to adopt the Paris Agreement rulebook. Have we not learned the stinging lessons from our inaction in handling tobacco?
Climate change exacerbates health inequities. As the days get hotter, crop yields will decline. Those who depend on crops for a living will be economically strained, while others are at risk for chronic malnutrition. Those who can least afford the impacts of climate change will be burdened most by its consequences.
Hotter days also mean that mosquitos carrying vector-borne diseases like dengue and malaria are able to reproduce faster and live in more temperate regions. Not only does this undermine decades of progress in combating vector-borne diseases, this further marginalizes low-middle income countries faced with most of its burden.
These health inequities are not just between rich and poor countries, developed and developing regions. In our own backyard, extreme weather events such as heat waves and forest fires have disproportionately impacted the elderly and rural communities.
How do Health Professionals Fit into Climate Action?
Between the climate finance debates on double counting emission reductions and nature-based solutions for more sustainable climate action, how does the health sector fit into all of this without taking the spotlight away from another?
Health professionals are advocates. As one of the most trusted occupations, health professionals can significantly influence public understanding and public behaviour through evidence-based recommendations. The voices of health professionals carry far, and health allies have a responsibility to leverage this voice to set more ambitious targets, mobilize more resources, and advocate for more effective policies.
Health professionals can mobilize climate action – by framing climate change in a relatable, personal way. Nothing is more personal than your health. Climate inaction has often been blamed on climate change being intangible, abstract, and complex. When the impacts of climate change is clearly communicated as personal health impacts, individuals are able embrace climate change with more ease and better relate to those with opposing political ideals.
Health professionals can help facilitate mitigation and adaptation efforts by sharing learnings. From the past century of tackling non-communicable diseases in a globalized world, the health sector has a wealth of lessons learned that parallel the challenges faced in climate action. Industry driven behaviours that degrade our health are happening to our climate. Efforts to curb industry influence on health behaviours, such as the framework convention on tobacco control, have saved countless lives. If we could do it for our health, why can’t we do it for the health of our planet? With only 11 years left to prevent catastrophic consequences of climate change (IPCC report), we can’t afford to make mistakes. We ought to learn from our past experiences and from the health profession.
And Why are They at COP 24?
At COP24, health professionals are walking a fine balance. Health professionals are advocating for the inclusion of health in discussions alongside the multitude of other issues that desperately require attention (loss and damage, youth inclusion, gender, human rights, to list off a few). While we carefully trudge between movements to find our own, we are also on a search for the inclusion of health within the rule book, nationally determined contributions, and national adaptation plans.
Fundamentally, health professionals are at COP24 to support increased interest in climate change issues, increased ambition for climate action, mitigation and adaptation efforts through nationally determined contributions.
The Bottom Line is:
When the health impacts of climate change is accounted for, mitigation efforts would no longer be a cost, but rather a life-saving opportunity (Energy Mix). Currently, only 0.5% of multilateral climate aid is allocated for health projects (Energy Mix). If climate change is treated as a public health emergency and a national security issue, we would be able to inspire far more climate action and mobilize far more resources for mitigation and adaptation.