Johnny Meldrum: The role of health professionals in UN climate change negotiations

As a medical student with the incredible opportunity to represent the voice of health at the UN climate talks in Durban (COP17), the day before my departure I was confronted with the following headline on the front-page of The Guardian: “Rich nations ‘give up’ on new climate treaty until 2020”

You might expect this would be demoralising. I’m flying to South Africa, inflicting a heavy financial and carbon cost and before my participation has even begun the leaders of rich nations have just “given up.” And of course to a certain extent you’d be right. The science has never been more clear – we are running out of time to prevent catastrophic climate change. We need to act now. However, it is important to remember that decarbonisation represents an unprecedented overhaul of the way we live our lives in pretty much every single way. A globally agreed climate deal would need to be similarly unprecedented in both its vision and its scale. But then the global problem we face could almost replace the dictionary entry for the word “unprecedented.” Clearly we need to be realistic – what can we achieve and how can we achieve it?

Durban is an important conference. As much as the parties involved try to downplay its importance, COP17 could go a long way to forming the detailed frameworks required for a future climate deal. This includes capacity building to ready ourselves for the impacts of climate change we know are coming, essential details on funding climate finance, and working out how technology can be transferred from high-income countries to low-income countries to allow sustainable development and protect the population from the worst effects of climate change. The details agreed now will have enormous impacts on how a future deal might work, what can be achievable, the effect on health and how this can be minimised.

Our organisation, Medsin, is an experienced advocate on global health issues. For many years we’ve worked within possibly the most multisectoral field there is. Whether lobbying for trade agreements that ensure access to essential medicines for the most vulnerable populations, delving into the economics of strengthening healthcare systems, or assessing the impact of agricultural policy on health, we have learnt how to manoeuvre within complex and often inaccessible frameworks, communicating our message in a relevant and human way. Our knowledge of these systems can inform policymakers on what works and what doesn’t.

This is where health professionals can make the difference in Durban. Mitigation and adaption to climate change requires a cross-sectoral and integrated approach and we have direct experience in advocating for and working within this. In Durban we must ensure that the input of the global health community is sought and that experts in public health are present within the make up of important committees. We need to be focussed on specific areas of policy to target where the health input will be most valuable.

Traditionally climate change is hard to relate to. The impact of climate change on health can be made personal, human and real. Measures to combat climate change – like adapting the design of cities to allow and encourage cycling and walking – will also lead to us living healthier lives. By communicating these messages we hope to provide the motivation and the justification for negotiators to work towards resolute action on climate change.

Johnny Meldrum is a currently having a year away from his studies before continuing with clinical medicine at UCL. He is vice-coordinator of Medsin, the UK student global health organisation and on the Medsin delegation to the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa. His interests include global health, international collaboration, politics, and education.