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Our climate, our health: It’s time for all health professionals to take action

Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health

Commentary
6 October 2015

Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health

Not long ago climate change was thought to be an issue of the future – a problem that would most impact our great or great grandchildren, years from now. This is far from the truth. Climate change is happening now, and we’re seeing the impact on our health every day, in all regions of the world.

If the world continues on its current path, in just over 80 years the average surface temperature is expected to rise 4° Celsius. Chances are many children born today will be alive in 2100. As the earth warms up, we will see longer and more frequent heat waves like the ones this summer in Pakistan and India that took nearly 5000 lives and caused thousands of heat-related illnesses.

Hurricanes, cyclones, floods and wildfires, like those that have already burned more than 8 million acres in the western United States this year, will become even more frequent, putting human lives and livelihoods at-risk. We will see more malnutrition as droughts limit food production and floods destroy crops.

Changes to weather patterns will continue to cause changes to infectious disease transmission patterns resulting in more outbreaks of malaria, dengue and cholera. Of these, malaria is of greatest concern – as it is a major killer, and is highly sensitive to long-term climate change and varies by season in highly endemic areas. Just as we are beginning to reduce malaria cases and deaths, we risk seeing our successes reversed.

At the same time, many of the same inefficient and polluting energy choices that are driving climate change, are also devastating human health: every year over 7 million deaths from respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer are attributable to air pollution.

Our duty as health professionals

As health professionals, we have a duty to stop the impacts of climate change. While it may seem outside our scope of work, we are at the front line in caring for the health of current and future generations.

Here at WHO, we have already taken steps to make the voice of health professionals heard.

"Let’s... make sure our health and the health of future generations are at the centre of the climate change negotiations."

Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health

In 2008, health ministers passed a World Health Assembly resolution on climate change, committing countries to take action to protect human health from climate change. The resolution is now supported by regional and country-level action plans.

A year ago, more than 400 high-level health delegates from all regions of the world agreed unanimously that climate change poses “unacceptable risks” to global public health. But, we need to be louder. The world is still missing a legally binding and universal agreement on climate change.

In less than 2 months, an estimated 25 000 delegates will meet in Paris at the Conference of Parties (COP 21), also known as the United Nations Climate Change Conference, with the aim of adopting a treaty and committing to keeping global warming below 2°C.

We need to make sure the world knows the Paris treaty is a public health treaty.

Actions to take

Now, more than ever we need the health community’s support. This is our final push and final effort to come to a resolution that will protect our health and the health of our children.

Here are 5 actions all health professionals can take:

First, we can learn about specific climate-related threats to the populations and patients with whom we work, assess our own and our health system’s capacity to cope, and work with others to plan adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Second, many impacts of climate change are avoidable through application of public health interventions, such as disease surveillance, disaster preparedness, mosquito control, nutritional supplementation and vaccines. As health professionals, we can work to strengthen our capacities in these areas.

Third, we can engage in local public health and environmental policy making to ensure that interventions to mitigate climate change are designed to maximize human well-being, such as working with urban planners to design cities that encourages more walking and less use of cars, cutting the huge health burden of air pollution and physical inactivity.

Fourth, we can lead by example through reducing the carbon emissions in our own hospitals and clinics through investing in renewable technologies such as solar power generation instead of diesel powered generators.

Last, we can use our knowledge and authority to advocate for a strong and effective climate agreement, and for health to be at the centre of all climate change policies and plans.

From now until COP 21, WHO is calling on all health professionals to advocate for a healthier and more sustainable future by signing our call to action.

Let’s go to Paris as one voice and make sure our health and the health of future generations are at the centre of the climate change negotiations.