Put health at heart of climate agenda

Although health has been discussed at previous United Nations climate conferences over the past decade, this year’s meeting will be the first where global health groups will, with one voice, call for governments to deliver on climate action.

The Public Health Association of South Africa (PHASA) — one of the more than 300 organisations representing at least 45 million nurses, doctors and other health professionals globally — is a signatory to the World Health Organisation-led COP26 special report on climate change and health.

It makes 10 recommendations to governments and policymakers including commitments to a healthy, green and just recovery from Covid-19, placing health and social justice at the heart of climate talks, prioritising climate interventions with the largest health, social, and economic gains and building climate resilient and environmentally sustainable health systems and facilities.

The other recommendations are to support health adaptation and resilience across sectors, as well as the promotion of sustainable and resilient food production and more affordable, nutritious diets.

“I think perhaps in the beginning health professionals didn’t appreciate the health impact of climate change,” said James Irlam, convener of PHASA’s climate, energy and health special interest group. “When you’re dealing with immediate risks, particularly in a developing country, climate change seems like it is a distant threat.

“But it has become more evident as we’ve seen in our own country — the impact of water shortages, drought and heat waves — which the climate models tell us with increasing certainty are part of our climate future. 

“So I think the science has improved, the modelling has improved, health professionals and particularly younger generations of health professionals are increasingly taking up the call that we need urgent action.” 

Rico Euripidou, the environmental health campaigner for environmental justice organisation groundWork, noted that non-communicable diseases were previously not on the global health agenda.

But over the past 10 to 15 years, science had become a lot stronger and there was now an understanding of the environment and how non-communicable diseases are just as important and responsible for the high global burden of disease, Euripidou said.

This year’s COP26 is expected to be the most consequential since the adoption of the Paris Agreement of 2015 on climate change. 

Countries will be expected to shift from pledges to the implementation of commitments they made at the adoption of the agreement. 

The World Health Organisation report says the benefit of prioritising public health through the transformation of sectors such as energy, transport, nature, food systems and finance outweighs the costs of dealing with the harm of climate change.

“For example, air pollution accounts for between seven to nine million deaths globally. That is three times more than the combined deaths from HIV, TB and malaria, so it’s a very high burden of disease,” said Euripidou. “The most recent science is that climate change is happening much faster and it seems to be happening at a [more] severe rate than we had anticipated. 

“In Southern Africa, we are particularly affected by droughts and water scarcity and we know that when water runs out, the very fundamentals in our public health infrastructure begins to crumble.” 

Water running out or being in short supply in South Africa results in the diarrhoea linked deaths of up to 20% children under the age of five, according to Euripidou. 

On the African continent, between 50% to 60% of children under the age of five die as a result of deaths linked to diarrhoea. 

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Marcia Zali
Marcia Zali is an award winning journalist

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