Climate Change Talks Fail to Recognise Human Health Risk

June 15, 2009 at 5:51 pm | Posted in News | Leave a comment

The WHO says healthcare is a critical but under-represented voice at climate talks. [Image: NASA / Wikimedia Commons]

The WHO says healthcare is a critical but under-represented voice at climate talks. Image: NASA / Wikimedia Commons

By James Black

The chances of achieving an effective strategy in the fight against climate change are dwindling according to the World Health Organisation’s leading environment expert. As talks came to a close in Bonn on Friday the WHO’s Senior Advisor on Public Health and Environment warned that discussions had failed to acknowledge the cost of global warming on human health.

Dr Roberto Bertollini warned that the role of the health sector had been largely ignored in the negotiations, despite a series of studies showing the disastrous impact of climate change on human well-being.

“The chances are decreasing drastically,” he said, when asked about the likelihood of an effective strategy being agreed at Copenhagen. “The human health concerns are the concerns which are actually moving the governments, authorities, and the people. Climate change is mostly an issue of human health and well-being. If this concept is more widely acknowledged there is a better chance of gaining public support for the implementation of reduction strategies.

“The health argument could be a very powerful force for facilitating decision making.”

His comments were echoed by Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, the WHO’s expert in the environmental risks to human health.

“The voice of the health sector should be critically important, but it is almost entirely absent,” said Dr Campbell-Lendrum. “You would be lucky to find a single health professional on any of the national delegations to the climate change talks.”

In recent months a series of reports has outlined the health risks of global warming. In May, The Lancet medical journal released a report warning that climate change is the single greatest health issue to face future generations. A report by the WHO released in conjunction with the World Health Assembly, also in May, outlined the role that the healthcare sector must play in combating climate change.

These reports were followed by a study headed up by former UN President Kofi Annan, which revealed that 300,000 people currently die each year as a result of climate change – a figure which could rise to 500,000 by 2030 without a comprehensive health strategy regarding global warming.

According to the WHO, less than 1% of the delegates involved in the UN negotiations are health representatives.

Dr Campbell-Lendrum warned that the health sector itself must take responsibility and make its voice heard in Copenhagen.

“It is mainly our own fault,” he said. “The health sector has been much too separatist in the past. It has been thinking that all it has got to do is run a healthcare system and traditional public health services. Climate change is telling us that’s not good enough. We’re going to have to be more imaginative, more collaborative, and be prepared to look to a more distant future as well as deal with the problems that press on us in the here and now.”

These concerns were echoed in an open letter sent by The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) and Healthcare Without Harm Europe(HCWH) addressed to the European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. The letter, also sent to Commissioner for Environment Stavros Dimas, and Commissioner for Health Androulla Vassiliou, calls for a delegation of top-level health experts to be sent to the Copenhagen talks.

“With the world’s governments moving closer to a new agreement on tackling climate change in Copenhagen this December, the health sector must have a fair chance to bring attention to serious human health concerns and to focus on the best policy options for human health and society at large,” said Pendo Maro, Joint Senior Climate Change and Energy Advisor for HEAL.

“We have recognition, but little action,” said Anja Leetz, Executive Director, HCWH Europe. “If we want resilient healthcare services able to mitigate and adapt to climate change, we need to get our act together now. Or else we could find ourselves with healthcare systems catastrophically ill-prepared for the health consequences of global warming.”

A spokesperson for Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou said that the relation between human health and climate change had already been recognized in The European Environment and Health Action Plan and through the adoption of the Commission’s White Paper on Climate Change in April.

“We will consider seriously the letter sent by the two organizations to the Commission yesterday and will be following up on this matter in close cooperation with the President and Commissioner Dimas,” the spokesperson said.

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