Maya Tickell-Painter: Where is health being included in the UN climate change negotiations?

Recently, you heard from Johnny Meldrum about why health professionals should care about climate change, and their role in the climate change negotiations. More than ever before, health professionals were present and engaging with the UN climate talks in Durban. During this conference there has been: a health summit, 6 official side events, two health-related actions, and numerous other informal and peer-to-peer education sessions. But how far have we really got at having health meaningfully included within the climate change negotiations?

Historically, involvement of health has been minimal. The original 1992 UNFCCC text has only two token mentions of health, the Kyoto Protocol has zero, and the Cancun Adaptation Framework—the major outcome of the talks last year—has one, in a footnote. Health professionals have previously lacked meaningful engagement on climate change issues. However, many things are now happening to highlight that this isn’t the case. There is now a large volume of high quality data that maps the many threats to human health and wellbeing that are posed by climate change; the World Health Organization predicts that climate change is currently causing 150,000 deaths per year. Each year, about 1.2 million people die from causes attributable to urban air pollution, 2.2 million from diarrhoea, largely resulting from lack of access to clean water supply and sanitation, 3.5 million from malnutrition, and approximately 60,000 in natural disasters. Climate change will exacerbate each of these existing disease burdens. In addition, the health impacts will predominantly affect the poorest and most vulnerable worldwide—women and children, the elderly, and those living in extreme poverty—those who have contributed least to the causes of climate change.

Expanding our knowledge, however, is not enough. The science now unequivocally tells us that it is becoming too late to avoid catastrophic climate change. Therefore, as a global community we will need to increase our capacity to adapt to the changes which climate change will bring.

In this area, the health profession will be crucial. A lack of involvement of health professionals within adaptation programmes, particularly under the Adaptation Committee (part of the Cancun adaptation framework), could have wide reaching and devastating effects on population health. Additionally, health is a tangible concept, which communities and individuals are easily able to envisage. Therefore, the use of health indicators to measure the impacts of climate change could act as an urgently required impetus for action.

It is increasingly important for health professionals to engage on climate change issues. It will be our patients who will be suffering the consequences in the years to come.

This blog was written before the final agreement was reached at the climate change talks in Durban. Another blog will follow shortly about the conclusion of the meeting.

Maya Tickell-Painter is a fourth year medical student currently studying in Brighton, UK. She is currently the national coordinator on climate change and health for Medsin, the UK student global health organisation. Interests include global health, sustainability, politics, and music.