To save our planet we have to speak loudly, act boldly at COP-27

Over the years, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has promoted a global and equitable participation of countries throughout the Conference of the Parties (COP) to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. 

Although there is remarkable progress towards its goal, the legitimacy of the COP has often been criticised for excluding many key actors. For example, COP-26 in Glasgow was criticised as one of the most exclusionary, due to the underrepresentation of the Global South. This reflects the inequalities between the people and communities most affected by climate change and those who are the most responsible.

Human consumption, our agricultural footprint, food production system, as well as technological and economic growth activities, driven by fossil fuels, have excessively exploited our planet’s limited natural resources. 

Exceeding the planet’s ecological limits has led to several environmental crises and the degradation of life’s essential ecosystem supports. These crises include global warming and climate change, pollution (air, water, and soil) and loss of biodiversity. Our planet’s inhabitants are paying the price as temperature rises, drought increases, water becomes scarcer, and extreme weather events occur more frequently and with greater intensity. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently stated that developing countries and poor people will suffer the most from the global environmental crises and particularly from the effects of climate change.

Soon, COP-27 will take place in Africa in November 2022. This will provide an opportunity for the continent to showcase how climate change is already affecting Africa. 

It will also allow African countries the chance to demand support for sustainable and climate-resilient development as they try to adapt to the impact of climate change. Africa is home to many biodiversity hotspots with animal, bird and plant species in numerous freshwater or wetland ecological regions. 

However, population growth, extensive agricultural practices, rapid urbanisation, infrastructure development and illegal wildlife trafficking amplify the challenges of environmental destruction. Damages attributed to climate change and anthropogenic activities, including loss of biodiversity, the destruction of tropical forests, food insecurity and reduced agriculture productivity and reduced economic growth, have increased inequality. 

This has largely been associated with poor management and climate change effects. Continued warming temperatures and intensified extreme weather events, persistent floods, wildfires, heatwaves, and accelerated drought will hugely affect  human health and the wellbeing of African people. At 1.5 0C of global warming, climate change has been associated with increased respiratory and cardiovascular diseases while contributing to changing patterns of infectious and neglected diseases in many African regions. The impact of climate change-induced droughts on agriculture productivity will affect millions of people and put them at risk of food insecurity and malnutrition. 

More than five million people are living with food insecurity, insufficient potable water and in emergency conditions in southern, northern and eastern Africa. Children, the elderly, and the poorest people are the most vulnerable. Higher levels of air pollution, coupled with rising temperatures, have already resulted in increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits for asthma, allergies, electrolyte disorders, depression, anxiety, hypertension, stress as well as increases in premature deaths. 

Periods of extreme heat result in higher rates of death from heat stroke, kidney problems and cardiac dysrhythmia. Changes in rainfall patterns are likely to increase the number of food and water-borne infections, such as diarrheal disease.

One of the most contemporary and challenging issues related to climate change in Africa is the displacement and migration of people. The number of migrants has increased because of climate change-induced drought and extreme weather events. Recently, more than 438 people lost their lives and over 40 000 people were displaced in the KwaZulu-Natal flash floods. There is higher evidence from the recent IPCC (Working Group 2) that global warming will continue to increase mortality and morbidity rates, and the burden of the disease while putting additional strain on health systems and local health services.

Although climate change is a complex political and global issue in the COPs, the emerging evidence of its impact on the health and wellbeing of humans and animals could be a turning point in the discourse. With that conviction in mind, COP-27 is an opportunity for health professionals to raise their voices and lead calls for climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. 

Although climate change effects cannot be completely avoided in Africa, many of the health risks could be prevented through building more climate-resilient health systems and particularly climate-resilient primary health care. Changes in morbidity such as in heat stress, asthma, diarrhoea, malaria and malnutrition, are treated at this level. 

There is a need for multidisciplinary and multisectoral collaboration. For example, family medicine, emergency medicine and public health must work together to prepare for the effects of climate change. The health sector must join hands with other sectors such as agriculture, energy, environment, water, and sanitation as well as education to inform the public, help prevent future greenhouse gas emissions and ensure that we develop more resilient communities and health services in Africa.

There is a growing awareness of the impacts of climate change among health professionals and the entire medical community. This can be an opportunity to take the message to the public and policy makers that climate solutions are a health priority and that by protecting our planet we protect ourselves.

In this regard, the new field of planetary health is a welcome development. As a transdisciplinary and holistic approach to health, this area of research recognises the interdependency of human health and the health of our planet. It focuses on defining and identifying the consequences for health of the emerging environmental crises and how we can create resilient clinical practices and responsive health systems. 

While this is not yet reflected in most health systems in Africa, it’s an imperative of education to explore resilience and adaptation strategies.

Dr Christian Lueme Lokotola is a lecturer in Planetary Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Christian Lueme Lokotola
Dr Christian Lueme Lokotola is a lecturer in planetary health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University.

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