Today saw COP’s first ever Climate and Health Summit, organised by Healthcare Without Harm alongside Climate and Health Council, World Federation of Public Health Associations and Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, University of KwaZulu-Natal. The summit was attended by over 200 health professionals, policy-makers and civil society members from over 30 countries and was a resounding success.
After a rousing performance by the Amatsheketshe Traditional Dancers, the South African Minister of Health Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi commenced proceedings with his keynote speech in which he spoke eloquently of the impact that climate change is already having on the health of South Africans, highlighting amongst others the issues of food security, increased risk of civil war and the tendency of climate change to undermine the ability of health systems to deliver health services. He went on to set the solutions-focused tone of the day by outlining the work that the South African Government is undertaking to tackle these problems in the form of a Climate and Health Adaptation Plan. He insisted that this must be seen as a central part of the general health service agenda once it is introduced. He reminded the audience of the Alma Ata pledge to achieve “health for all by the year 2000”. The year 2000 has come and gone, and not only have we failed to achieve health for all, but our failure to take meaningful action on climate change means that we are in fact jeopardising people’s health. The Minister concluded that “the dream of Alma Ata must never be allowed to die”.
Professor Hugh Montgomery of the UCL Division of Medicine and the Climate and Health Council UK, delivered the second keynote speech of the day, injecting real sense of urgency to the debate, arguing convincingly that “climate change is not just about dollars, it is about lives, suffering and survival.” He presented clear data about to demonstrate the effects of climate change on health, showing, for instance, that as temperatures rise not only does mortality rise, but bacterial doubling rates rise too, which leads to the spread of disease and infection such as malaria and dengue fever. He showed that an increased frequency of extreme weather events, for instance flooding and drought can ravish communities, leading to poverty, food shortages, migration and even conflict. All of these effects are dangerous for people’s health. Professor Montgomery’s message was clear. We cannot continue to systematically destroy the bio-system that we inhabit. Suggestions by some countries to delay the implementation of a binding treaty until 2020 will simply be too late: “If we plan to write a prescription in eight years time, we might instead find ourselves writing a death sentence.”
The summit then moved onto a Plenary Panel on the politics and economics of climate change and health, with Nnimmo Bassey, President of Friends of the Earth International, Dr. Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum of the Department of Public Health and environment at WHO, and Martin Khor, director of the South Centre. Mr Bassey discussed the direct impacts of the destructive extraction of fossil fuels on health. He paid particular attention to gas flares, which account for 400 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide per year. There are direct threats to the health of people living close to these flares, including acid rain, lunch infection, bronchitis, asthma and poisoned food and water. For the sake of people’s health, he said, we should “leave the oil in the soil, leave the coal in the hole, leave the tar sands in the land and no fracking business at all!” Dr Campbell-Lendrum followed Mr Bassey by explaining how human health is underpinned by the eco-system, which in turn is heavily influenced by socio-economic conditions (which we can influence). As we carry on polluting the environment we are undermining the environmental determinants of health. He argued that we must strengthen health systems to ensure resilience to climate change and choose healthy patterns to a low-carbon futures.
Mr Khor then furthered this message, arguing that we need to stop squandering tomorrow’s resources today on things we do not need and to remove inequality by effecting serious lifestyle changes and a change in our perception of what life is.
In the afternoon, there were two sets of panel discussions which continued the solutions-focused theme. The first set was focused on climate mitigation and adaptation, including addressing climate change in Africa, the health co-benefits of climate mitigation, and mitigation and adaptation in the health sector. The second set of discussions was focused on advocacy for a healthy climate, including the role of health professionals and women in climate and health advocacy, climate advocacy in South Africa and the issues of equity and sustainability in the UNFCCC process and beyond. The discussions provided a forum for people to share some of the innovative ways in which various groups and individuals are approaching their advocacy efforts.
After spending the day sharing ideas and talking to people from a wide variety of organisations and countries, the atmosphere at the summit was one of empowerment. One of the key successes of the day was to forge new networks between people working on climate and health world-over. A declaration on climate and health - which included a call for action at COP 17 - was released. The time is ripe for health professionals to engage with climate change advocacy more urgently than ever and the Climate and Health Summit bolstered everyone’s motivation and ability to do just that.