Sidelining Health in Climate Talks?

This is part of an ongoing yet sporadic series of posts on the social aspects of climate change. Previous posts considered gender and human rights.

The links between climate change and health are increasingly evident, and yet health is a marginal issue in the climate change negotiations. The relative neglect of health issues in the climate change negotiations and broader discussion is surprising. Health issues are tangible and strike a chord with the public – both characteristics that are useful for politicians and activists seeking progress.

Highlighting the health implications of climate change could be a game changer that will get people on board. A recent study confirmed the potential of framing climate change as a health issue to engage people who are otherwise disinterested in climate change. Yet, so far, few climate actors have capitalized on this opportunity.

The relative dearth of messaging does not mean that health and climate are separate issues. The Word Health Organization (WHO) estimates climate caused for over 140 000 deaths annually by the year 2004. Heatwaves influence mortality and morbidity for sensitive populations and for those sensitive to ground level ozone and asthma. More extreme weather events and natural disasters not only causes death and injury, but also stresses or destroys water and sanitation systems crucial to preventing disease.

There are a host of indirect links because climate change with exacerbate several environmental factors that bear on our health. Agricultural is a highly vulnerable sector, which may heighten malnutrition as food becomes more scarce or expensive. Various diseases, sensitive to climactic changes may spread as water and air temperatures and rainfall patterns shift. As the WHO stated in 2008, when the organization made climate change the focus of World Health Day, the health needs to be protected from climate change. These are snapshots of the potential health impacts, the IPCC devoted a chapter to health in the last two Assessment Reports (for a more digestable version: see the summary here).

These multiple connections between climate change and health led the Lancet Commission in 2009 to declare that climate change could be the biggest health effect of the 21st century.

Unsurprisingly, the focus thus far has been on helping create adaptation plans that will both adapt to climate change’s impacts and help protect health. As early as 2002, Health Canada considered the health-related vulnerabilities created by climate change in Canada’s north. The WHO has partnered with the UN Development Project to pilot various adaptation measures that will protect health in developing countries representing a range of vulnerabilities, from low-lying island states to water-stressed areas.

Yet, there may be instances where taking action on health can help protect the climate. Targeted actions can have co-benefits for health and climate change. For example, creating walkable and bike-friendly urban environments creates benefits for health and reduces GHG emissions. The connections between mitigation and health seem fewer and more tangential to the debate.

There may be fewer logical, and relatively direct, links between health and mitigation and this could be one reason why there the climate negotiations tend to neglect health. Mitigation is the traditional topic of the UN climate talks. Mitigation was the focus of the Kyoto Protocol and adaption only emerged as a key area in the negotiations in 2007, with the Bali Action Plan. Yet, adaptation still receives less funding and less attention in the talks – its tends to be the neglected, somewhat poorer cousin.

Among civil society, those we’d expect to carry the health banner, many health NGOs were rather late to the game, while several environmental NGOs seem reticent to take up health messaging. There were earlier whispers. In 2007, a group of NGOs working on environmental and development issues held a side event on climate change and health, highlighting effects on peri-urban and urban malaria, rabies, malaria, typhoid, and hyptertension in various developing countries. Health NGOs started attending in greater numbers since Copenhagen in 2009. They seem to be making up for lost time, organization to form the Global Climate and Health Alliance – a network of the various NGOs attempting to raise health issues in climate change negotiations.

They have considerable work to do to keep health messaging in the ears and eyes of the public at national and international levels. Doctors may not see discussing climate change as part of their jobs, and may worry about touching an issue that can be polarizing and controversial in some countries. Frontline workers focus on immediate priorities, and yet climate change impacts can often manifest as a long, slow burn.

While the health community may be the best messengers for climate change, they need allies. The US EPA has to keep health front and center in its climate change regulatory ambitions. In part, the EPA can regulate greenhouse gas emissions as pollutants because of the health effect associated with GHGs. The WHO is hosting a conference on climate change and health this month (for coverage, see IISD RS), which could build bridges to established climate actors.

It will take powerful voices willing to speak out on the health impacts of climate change to bring this issue in from the margins. Given the unique potential of health to activate and mobilize people for climate change action, those powerful allies need to arrive soon to build political will for a 2015 agreement.

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