Climate change and human health

UN Climate Summit thematic session: Climate, Health and Jobs

Fast action on climate change could not only reduce the serious and growing burden of health risks from extreme temperatures, storms, droughts and flooding, and changing patterns of disease – but also reap huge health “co-benefits”, a panel of experts at the United Nations Climate Summit emphasized.

The panel, co-hosted by WHO and the International Labour Organization, brought together a former WHO Director General and Prime Minister of Norway, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, with Ms Sharan Burrow, General-Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Mr Tang Jie, Vice-Mayor of Shenzhen, People’s Republic of China, recently awarded a prize as a “green city”, and Dr Veerabhadran Ramanathan, Professor of climate sciences at the Scripps Institute for Oceanography, University of California at San Diego.

The session was co-chaired by H.E. Sauli Niinistö, President of Finland. Nicolas Hulot- Special Envoy of the French President for the Protection of the Planet and WHO Director General Dr Margaret Chan were among the guests in the audience of about 250 notables, experts and policymakers at the afternoon thematic session at the UN Climate Summit, 23 September, in New York City.

Panellists spoke about the growing concerns with the health toll of climate change due to more frequent droughts, flooding, extreme weather, changing disease patterns, and the effects of extreme heat and rising temperatures on workers labouring outdoors.

But the opportunities for actually increasing the health benefits from climate mitigation can also bolster the case for fast action now, said panel moderator Dr Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, pointing to a series of recent studies showing that health savings, particularly from lower levels of air pollution, could pay back the costs of climate change mitigation – sometimes on an order of ten to one.

“The climate crisis is not all bad news – there is a climate dividend to be grasped. There are opportunities for wellbeing and jobs, “ said Horton.

“Part of the challenge is to communicate the threats that climate change presents to health. These are well known, including changes in patterns of disease and mortality, to nutrition, and water and sanitation, and population migration,“ Horton added. “But it is better to emphasize the opportunities. Changes to diet, electricity generation, transportation, will bring benefits to our wellbeing. We need concrete actions to turn this opportunity into a reality.”

At the current pace of climate emissions, the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts hold that temperatures could rise by as 4° Celsius or more over much of the globe by the year 2100. This would have major consequences for health. Low-lying areas where people live today could be lost forever due to rising sea levels. Rising temperatures could turn the warmest parts of the world into places where it is no longer safe to work or carry out physical activity outdoors.

But sharply curbing emissions now by shifting to renewable energy sources could reap significant health benefits, reducing the huge global death toll from indoor and outdoor air pollution, said Brundtland.

“Human health and planetary health are closely linked,” Brundtland said. “7 million deaths a year are caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution. We can reduce that by addressing the links between climate, health, energy. Renewable energy is a solution.”

Labour leader Burrow, meanwhile, called for “bold action” by governments to aim for a strong agreement on curbing climate emissions in Paris in 2015, when the UN member states are due to negotiate a new treaty, and new partnerships between and labour business for action.

“Working people are increasingly at the frontlines,” of the climate crisis, Burrow said, noting how the livelihoods of the most vulnerable workers, including farmworkers, fishermen, women, and workers in the informal sector were already being severely damaged by extreme weather and other climate impacts. But ultimately far broader sectors could be affected, she warned, saying “there are no jobs on a dead planet.”

Panelists also recounted stories of success in curbing climate emissions and thus generating both health and jobs benefits.

In the transport sector, the State of California imposed sharp emissions controls on black carbon (a component of soot) emitted by diesel vehicles, recounted Ramanathan. Black carbon is the second largest contributor to global warming after CO2 and also a key component of health-harmful particulate matter – so there was a double benefit to the action. Ground level ozone, another short-lived climate pollutant created by a mix of vehicle and urban pollution emissions was another target of action; it is a key factor in chronic asthma as well as severely harming crop productivity, he said.

“There are off the shelf , scalable technologies to cut these pollutants,” Ramanathan noted. “And if we apply these techniques now, the pollutants and their warming effect disappears almost immediately from the atmosphere. At the same time, we will save about 2 million lives (from air pollution) and about 50 million tonnes of crops a year, enough to feed about half a billion people.”

Finally, in the urban sector, Shenzhen has cut its pollution emissions from the transport sector by shifting to electric and alternative energy vehicles, noted Jie, an economist as well as the city’s vice mayor. He said that shifting economic investment and outputs from high carbon industries to lower-carbon innovation based employment in the IT and similar sectors could help support the transition to a green and low-carbon economy, with new job creation.

“Shenzhen has transformed itself from a high carbon economy to low-carbon, innovation-based employment,” Jie said. “If we can revolutionize vehicles to shift from diesel to electric and new energy vehicles, then emissions will further drop. .. but this is only the first step.. Shenzhen wants to become a green city and a green innovation city. We have some transitions to go through, we need some time and we need your support. “

Asked how the health sector could help lead the transition to reducing climate change, WHO’s Chan noted that new solar energy technologies can help improve health services in health clinics that currently lack any electricity whatsoever. And the health sector should advocate for healthier, low-carbon diets – including in workplace cafeterias.

“It is quite romantic to have a candlelight dinner, but to do a caesarean section with candlelight is dangerous for mothers and child, “ Chan said, speaking from the session floor. “Another area of opportunity is dietary interventions, she noted, saying that vegetarian diets, for instance, are “healthy and contributing to lower carbon emissions,” and workplace cafeterias can be places where healthier dietary habits can be introduced for benefit of workers and employers alike.

Horton, in closing remarks said that the stories of success need more attention to reinforce the will of policymakers to take action. “We heard about the difficulties, but we also have heard about fantastic examples of success. We need to use those stories to build the confidence among governments and decision makers that acting on climate is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do.”