WHO Climate Change Conference: Immediate Health Benefits Possible

Posted September 2, 2014

The first-ever global conference on health and climate change was hosted by WHO in Geneva from August 27-29. More than 300 invited participants attended the three-day forum, including UN agency heads, government officials, health and climate experts, and NGO representatives.

In her opening remarks, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said, “The evidence is overwhelming: climate change endangers human health. Solutions exist and we need to act decisively to change this trajectory.”

Flavia Bustreo warned that the effects of climate change will pose one of society’s most serious health challenges if definitive action is not taken to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. Echoing  sentiments that Paul Farmer and Mary Robinson expressed in the June 2014 Health and Human Rights Special Issue on Climate Change, Bustreo stated, “Vulnerable populations, the poor, the disadvantaged, and children are among those suffering the greatest burden of climate-related impacts and consequent diseases.”

While the conference was in session, WHO declared that two specific messages were emerging. The first message focused on protecting lives now: fast-action climate change reduction options exist that promise specific and immediate health benefits. The fight against air pollution was cited as a prime example in this case, with experts at the conference reporting that air pollution is currently responsible for one in eight deaths across the globe, causing 7 million deaths in 2012. Despite these grim statistics, WHO reported that conference participants were hopeful and enthusiastic, because climate change solutions have the capacity to effect immediate health benefits. For example, changing energy and transport policies can save thousands of lives each year.

The second message of the conference highlighted the goal of protecting society in the future. Although tens of thousands of lives are already being lost annually due to climate change, mitigation and adaptation measures exist that can help prepare communities for the extreme weather, changing disease patterns, and food insecurity that will continue. Participants at the conference are collaborating to improve the global health community’s surveillance and control of dengue, malaria, and cholera, all of which are highly sensitive to shifts in temperature, rainfall, and other climatic factors. More attention must be paid to the effects of extreme weather events such as droughts, heat waves, and natural disasters, as these can all severely hurt agriculture production, sanitation efforts, and water quality.

WHO timed this conference to prepare issues and topics in advance of the upcoming UN Climate Summit in New York City on September 23, 2014.

Related recent HHR articles:

HHR 16/1 Editorial: The Great Procrastination by Jay Lemery, Carmel Williams, and Paul Farmer

HHR 16/1 Foreword by Mary Robinson

Rising Oceans, Climate Change, Food Aid, and Human Rights in the Marshall Islands

Social Justice, Climate Change, and Dengue

Related links:

WHO news release: WHO calls for stronger action on climate-related health risks

UN news release: Experts at UN conference call for action to mitigate climate-related health risks

UN Climate Summit 2014 website: http://www.un.org/climatechange/summit/