Michael Wilks: Climate change and health – time for a new narrative

The last “COP” (conference of the parties) meeting, in Copenhagen a year ago ended in chaos, mutual distrust, and an agreement on very little. The fact that world leaders are staying away from the next COP, which started in Cancún, Mexico a week ago, may be an advantage. Out of the glare of publicity, and without the expectations that were riding on Copenhagen, some progress may be forthcoming.

An area that is getting increasing attention is the link between global warming and health. To date, these links have been painted in lurid colours. Vector-borne diseases, asthma and other respiratory diseases, heat-related deaths, malnutrition and famine are all projected to increase. These predictions are correct, but in drawing attention to them they seem remote and distant to most people’s experience or concerns. Action taken as a result of dire warnings are unlikely to be constructive and appropriate.

What those of us at Cancún are trying to do is to emphasise a benefit of action to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) – a “co-benefit” that improves health and reduces healthcare costs. Recent studies in the EU predict that the current annual savings of 52 billion Euros that will accrue from the current 20% reduction target in GHGs, will increase to 82.5 billion if the reduction hits 30%. Here we have a virtuous circle that should attract politicians and health providers – what is good for the planet is also good for health. Spending money on green technology is matched by corresponding reductions in healthcare costs.

The health campaign started at Cancún on Monday.

Michael Wilks is attending the Cancún meeting as part of a health professional and environmental group.