Nicole Egan - Nov 16 2021
Global Healthcare Workers Urge Governments to Act on Climate Change and Health

Extreme weather events like droughts, wildfires, heavy rainfall, and storms are increasing in frequency around the world as climate change worsens. But reports have found that these events are also significantly impacting human health. Not only can they exacerbate underlying medical conditions and increase stress, but they can disrupt critical public healthcare and systems, leaving gaps long after the storm has passed.

And ahead of last week’s COP26, more than 450 organisations, representing two-thirds of global healthcare workers (over 45 million people), called on politicians to consider the health benefits of climate action. The appeal coincides with a Special Report on Climate Change and Health from the World Health Organization (WHO) that sets out 10 calls for climate action.

Joined by over 3,400 individuals from 102 different countries, the group of global healthcare workers is calling the climate crisis the single biggest health threat facing humanity, more catastrophic and enduring than the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Urging governments to live up to their responsibilities to protect citizens – present and future – from the climate crisis, the open letter points to numerous health harms caused by climate change, including 7 million premature deaths annually due to air pollution. Authors of the appeal note that the costs of policies, such as improving the cleanliness of air and water and creating more secure food supplies, would be offset by savings in healthcare costs and years of productive life preserved.

“Preserving and optimising the health of the almost 8 billion humans on the planet is a vast challenge in the best of times,” notes Dr Farley Cleghorn, Palladium Chief Medical Officer. “Existential threats like climate change make all other threats combined seem puny in comparison.”

A Green Recovery from COVID-19

Both the letter and the report emphasise the criticality of a green recovery from COVID-19 as an immediate priority. For healthcare workers, they note the tireless efforts that the world has witnessed throughout the pandemic and include an emotive plea that those efforts are not in vain. Alluding to a future filled with successive, spiralling health crises, they call upon decision-makers to step in with consistent action to diminish the impending health catastrophe and “make human health and climate justice central to their climate change mitigation and adaptation response.”

Cautioning against public investments in recovery plans that support carbon-intensive industries (see the UK’s recent public funding of coal power stations for one such example) green recovery paths are championed with specific calls to transition away from fossil fuels and to build climate resilient, low-carbon, sustainable health systems.

The Inequity of Climate Change

The open letter stresses the inequity of climate change by appealing to high income countries to take additional action. This includes providing promised transfers of funds to low-income countries in support of climate action and making larger cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. The WHO report underscores this inequity, noting that developing nations that have historically contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions are among the areas where the climate crisis has had the worst effect on health.

These low-income areas are least able to protect against climate change, bolstering calls for those people and nations who have benefited most from the climate crisis causes, specifically fossil fuel extraction and use, to do everything possible to help those most at risk.

“The health of the planet and the health of humans are deeply connected, and the most profound impact of climate change today are being experienced in places making the smallest carbon and greenhouse contribution and with the lowest capacity to mitigate effectively,” adds Cleghorn.

The Time is Now

Integrating health and equity into climate policy worldwide will not only protect the health of the global population, but will maximise returns on investments – in real, tangible ways, that are likely to build additional public support for the climate action that is so urgently needed. Cleaner air and water, secure and healthier food supplies, by way of simple examples, are beneficial to people, today and tomorrow.

Scientific assessments make clear that to avert catastrophic health impacts and prevent millions of climate change-related deaths, the world must limit warming to 1.5°C. Illustrating the global failure to date, the letter notes that the world is currently on a trajectory to warming of 2.7-3.1°C this century alone.

“We are deep into the eleventh hour of need to mitigate and adapt to climate change and instability and ensure a future of humans,” notes Cleghorn. “The actions agreed upon today will allow crucial time to develop better plans to preserve a living and working environment for all of us, including the living things with which we share this planet,” he concludes.

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