Evidence supports urgent action to avoid grave health consequences from climate change

WHO

Evidence is linking climate change to five major health consequences—disease and injury from extreme weather events; changing distribution of insect-borne diseases; diarrhoeal disease from water scarcity or flooding; compromised food security; and air pollution. Over 300 heads of government, leading scientists and development partners agreed that without adequate action climate change poses unacceptable risks to global public health, and they put forward ways for increasing health in tandem with climate change mitigation and adaptation at the WHO’s first-ever Conference on Health and Climate in Geneva, Switzerland, on 27–29 August 2014.

Health issues appear with climate change

Examples underscoring the urgent need to address climate change as a health issue are rapidly mounting. One of the 128 European region participants from 32 countries attending the Conference, Elisabetta Colaiacomo from Italy’s Ministry for the Environment Land and Sea, described that, “Italy, and the Mediterranean basin, is very much a ‘hot point’ for the impacts of climate change. Extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts and heat-waves, are more frequent now than in the past and present a distinct climate-related threat to health. Urgent actions are needed to develop a prompt response to all the threats to the environment and health. These actions will need to consider local and regional relevance, tackling issues in a concrete and intersectoral manner.” Colaiacomo added, “It is our commitment to work for concrete co-benefits, and bringing together the health and environment communities to strengthen a common dialogue and speak with a stronger voice to face the common challenges.”

Acknowledged at the Conference was the need to engage the health sector much more in international and national policy process on climate change, such as with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Re-prioritizing funding to improve the health sector’s technical capacities to design and strengthen climate resilience can also be a means for increasing the health sector’s expertise in climate change action.

Health sector leadership in climate change action

Reflected in the implementation of the Parma “Commitment to act” and the European Regional Framework for Action is the need to develop a health sector that can optimally fulfill a leadership role in climate change mitigation, such as by identifying critical health consequences and reducing carbon emissions from operations. Ainash Sharshenova, Scientific and Production Centre for Preventive Medicine, Ministry of Health, Kyrgyzstan, said, “Kyrgyzstan is a very mountainous country; almost 90% of the land area is more than 1,500m above sea level. As such, we experience specific impacts of climate change, such as melting glaciers and increases in desertification. These effects are having impacts on health through flooding and landslides, as well as extreme weather events. I think it is very important that the health sector leads by example. In Kyrgyzstan, WHO and UNDP/GEF have supported innovation in energy efficiency and use of renewable energy in the health sector. By promoting the use of renewable energy sources and energy-saving technologies in the health sector we have shown that it is sustainable, it can enhance business continuity in rural areas, and it supports both climate change mitigation and adaptation.”

Solutions point to cross-sectoral collaboration

Recommendations for next steps at the Conference included forming better connections for sharing data and research between public health authorities and organizations such as the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), so that metrics for the monitoring and evaluation of health resilience to climate risks can be identified and leveraged. The WHO Regional Office for Europe has a platform on climate change and health, in cooperation with its partners, such as the European Environment Agency (EEA). Strengthening coordination with a global platform on health and climate will benefit network-strengthening opportunities, as was experienced by conference participant Rachel Lowe, a researcher for the Catalan Institute of Climate Sciences (IC3). She said, “In Barcelona, I teach a class on climate change and human health. It was extremely interesting to learn more about the co-benefits for health that can be achieved through climate change mitigation activities and the duty of the health community to lead by example. This conference has given me an excellent opportunity to get a better idea of what is being achieved globally, the lessons of which I can take back to my students. Also, being able to foster my professional networks and discuss my research with fellow academics has been extremely valuable.”

European Regional Consultation

The high turnout of representatives from the European Region provided a perfect opportunity to host a Regional Consultation on the current state and way forward on climate change and health initiatives. Convened by the Working Group on Health in Climate Change (HIC), priorities for implementation in the European Region were discussed, namely infectious diseases, water and sanitation, extreme weather events and urban management. It was highlighted that the Parma “Commitment to act” requires further strengthening. The HIC was able to showcase the role it plays in supporting and monitoring implementation in the Region as well as fostering new partnerships between the Member States and agencies (e.g. UNISDR, Alpine Convention, etc.). Funding opportunities, specifically EU structural and research funding, as well as the GEF and World Bank funding, will be crucial in supporting further work in the region. The session was able to raise awareness of regional platforms, such as THE PEP (Transport, Health and Environment Pan-European Platform), and the role they play in bringing together different sectors for mutual benefit and enhanced implementation. Several mechanisms for further awareness-raising were proposed, such as the Central Asian Forum, the Climate Summit and side events at the next Conference of the Parties.

Contributing to international agreements

The Conference’s timing was established to help shape international agreements on climate change that may arise from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Climate Summit in New York on 23 September 2014 and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Conference of the Parties in Paris from 30 November–11 December 2015. Guidance from the Conference will also be applied in WHO revisions to its workplan, which includes support for Member States in assessing and reducing health vulnerabilities to climate change and coordination between partner agencies within the UN system.

Conference outcomes should urge policy makers to capture previously unrecognized health benefits through swift action to control climate change, with close attention to the struggle that areas with currently weak health infrastructures will experience in coping with climate change outcomes.