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 has one – in a footnote. Negotiations for this year haven’t finished yet, but so far there hasn’t been significant progress in the inclusion of health.
This could cut both ways- health professionals have previously lacked meaningful engagement on climate change issues. But now so many things are 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 Organisation 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. Unless a dramatic change in events occurs during the next 2 days, it is unlikely that the world will see a legally binding global deal before 2020. And the science now unequivocally tells us that this is 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, 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.
A lack of action by the negotiators at Durban would make it more, not less, 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.
Maya Tickell-Painter is a fourth year medical student currently studying in Brighton, UK. She travelled to the COP 17 conference in Durban as a representative of Medsin, the UK student global health organisation. This blog first appeared on the Adopt-A-Negotiator website on 7th December 2011.