Last week, in the wrap-up of the international climate change conference in Cancun, two of the rare side event meetings addressing public health effects of climate change were held in one day. The first event, a lunchtime roundtable, was sponsored by WHO and brought together ministers of health, environment and agriculture from Mexico, Macedonia, Bangladesh, Mali, Maldives and Spain. Their goal: to identify the challenges faced, and opportunities identified, through a focus on public health and climate change.
The challenges are stark: according to WHO figures, more than 140,000 people are dying each year due to the effects of climate change. All over the world, coastal and urban populations are growing, making communities increasingly vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise, heat islands, and air pollution. And yet, at the national and international levels, when it comes to prioritizing around climate change, often economic concerns come first, environmental issues are second, and health is ranked third, if at all. As one Minister on the panel forcefully argued, “Humanity must be regarded as the most important species impacted by climate change.”
The second side event echoed these concerns, as well as focusing on concrete, accessible solutions to improving health and adapting to climate change. Sponsored by the SeaTrust Institute and Nurses Across the Borders, the event included panelists from the Public Health Institute (PHI) and WHO that discussed emerging successes and opportunities for cross-sector collaboration. For example, indoor air pollution produced through cooking with biomass fuel over open stoves is associated with the deaths of over 2 million people each year, mainly women and children. In this case, both health and the climate are affected, as biomass is associated with black carbon, a potent greenhouse gas. However, recent initiatives, such as a new project that PHI is developing in India, Kenya and Guatemala, work to address this problem through the distribution of clean cookstoves that burn fuel efficiently, reducing the need for large quantities of biomass, and dramatically reduce exposure to smoke from cooking fires. Other solutions proposed by panelists were fairly simple and straightforward, but can have a significant impact, such as initiatives that promote walking or biking to work, and decreasing the beef protein in one’s diet. Both solutions offer the likelihood of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while promoting healthy, preventive behaviors- which panelists described as ‘win-win’ solutions.
Despite the promise offered by these solutions, additional research is needed to understand the role of climate change in shifting human health outcomes, as well as the most effective responses. A Health Coalition is being developed to build this research base by producing case studies, sharing data, and developing collaborative strategies across sectors.
For more information on how PHI’s work addressing public health and climate change, please visit us at climatehealthconnect.org, and join our community today!