- by Professor Sue Atkinson
- FPH Health and Sustainability SIG
I am in Paris – for COP 21.
COP 21 (21st Conference of the Parties) of the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are the negotiations between the 195 countries attending, to make a deal to curb emissions and keep global warming below 2°C.
I am not at the main COP negotiations in Le Bourget but at the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA) Health Summit and other parallel health meetings.
Unfortunately the timing of the Summit means I missed the FPH ‘Sustainable development and health’ SIG meeting in Nottingham on 4th December which followed the instigation of the SIG at the Faculty Conference in June.
People are starting to recognise the importance of health, climate change and sustainability and accepting what the Lancet commission identified in 2009, that ‘Climate Change (CC) could be the biggest global threat of the 21st Century’.
The Health Summit was the buzziest conference in ages. Over 500 people and oversubscribed, it was chaired (amusingly and with clear insights) by John Vidal (Environment Editor for the Guardian) and attendees included Health Ministers, the Deputy Mayor of Paris, WHO and GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, the German equivalent of DFID), who both supported the conference (thank you), representatives of health and climate change groups and alliances from across the globe.
The presentations, parallel sessions and panel discussions were informative, interesting, lively, amusing, challenging and enjoyable with many interesting discussions taking place around the edges with an exchange of shared ideas and experiences to take back home.
Some of the snippets I picked up included:
- Wales has a ‘Wellbeing of Future Generations Act’ and a commissioner to make things happen. It is one of only two countries with sustainability in its constitution.
- California showed the importance of political leadership in Senator Kevin de Leon, who is introducing a variety of relevant bills and noted that air pollution is not just a public health issue but also a political and civil and human rights issue because of its inequities.
- Air pollution is worst in poor areas and African American children have a 50% higher risk of being hospitalized and Latino children a 40% higher risk of death from asthma.
- Health care systems are part of the problem. In USA they account for 8% of emissions. Hospitals across the globe are increasingly taking action to reduce energy usage (and costs) but much more needs to be done.
- Reducing red meat consumption (and its procurement by hospitals and institutions) is good for health and the planet. The Buddhist Dalin Tzu Chi Hospital in Taiwan has moved to a plant based diet to improve health and the environment.
- Cities are increasingly taking action on reducing emissions where states and countries are unable to reach agreements. In Paris over 100 mayors came together with the Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo calling for them to unite and work together to mitigate climate change. London has reduced its carbon emissions by 14% since 2008 but I am sure Bristol and elsewhere may be doing better.
- The Paris Deputy Mayor – Bernard Jornier – clearly understands well the relationships between health, climate change and inequalities.
- Goldman Sachs decreed in September 2015 that “Coal is in terminal decline”.
- Using fossil fuels means there are more than seven million extra deaths per year.
- The co-benefits of addressing health and climate change together are clear – e.g. increasing active travel – walking and cycling – is good for your health and good for the planet.
And much much more …
We have come a long way since COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, when those of us interested in health and climate change could fit around one small coffee table and it now feels as though the importance of health in the climate change negotiations is starting to make its mark.
CC science is real but it is often difficult to get our heads round and some of the environmental and other impacts seem like a long way off and we know that politicians and all of us (including teenagers) find it hard to recognise and take action on threats that are in the more distant future.
Health brings home the real story of the impact of climate change – imperative, immediate and life changing.
Families displaced because of floods and typhoons, children starving as a result of drought resulting in failing crops, older people dying in heat-waves, even as recently and as nearby as 15,000 deaths in France in 2003.
With 500 people still dying annually of Malaria, the 2.5 million people suffering from the disease could increase again to over four million with the spread of mosquitos due to climate change.People are sick and dying from lack of clean water as a result of either drought or destruction of infrastructure by severe storms and tsunamis.
Closer to home, just this weekend the floods in Cumbria have caused distress and destruction as well as the financial costs of these storms. And of course the important links between climate change, disasters and water shortages, refugees and terrorism.
The latest Lancet Commission (2015) identified that ‘Tackling CC could be the greatest health opportunity of the 21st century’.
The health summit felt both daunting and optimistic. We must act now.
The spoken word poet – Sophia Walker – captured it in her piece written for the Health Summit as “…we aren’t just talking about the weather” and suggested that nine billion people on the planet could work ‘miracles’ if they all did their bit.
We in public health must do ours, not just individually but in whatever ways we can through our building it into our daily work, e.g. identifying the co-benefits of improving health and the environment. It seems that at last the penny may be dropping that climate change and health are inexplicably linked. What’s good for health is good for the planet.
Lancet Commission. 2009. “Managing the health effects of climate change”. Lancet and UCL Institute for Global Health Commission. April 2009.
Lancet Commission.2015. “Health and Climate Change: policy responses to protect public health” Lancet. June 2015.