COP28: The climate crisis is also a health crisis

COP28: The climate crisis is also a health crisis

Health has made it to the agenda of a UN climate conference, and health advocates at COP28 in Dubai on Sunday said the topic was long overdue for discussion as climate inaction is costing lives and impacting health every single day.

Our planet has logged higher mean temperatures each year, with 2023 set to be the hottest on record. Ice sheets are melting and an unprecedented rate. Wildfires have made the air hazardous in some regions, while in other floods regularly threaten to contaminate drinking water.

Against this backdrop, more and more people are being affected by disasters, climate-sensitive diseases and other health conditions.

Climate change exacerbates some existing health threats and creates new public health challenges. Worldwide, only considering a few health indicators, an additional 250,000 deaths per year will occur in the next decades because of climate change, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO).

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With such sobering facts in mind, WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told delegates gathered at COP28 that it was long overdue for discussions around environmental health, rising sea levels, and melting glaciers, to be extended to encompass the direct impacts of such climate shocks on human health.

This first-ever dedicated ‘Health Day’ at a COP is highlighting several key events, including on public-private partnerships for healthcare climate action and on unlocking relevant financial and political commitments.

Ministers of health, environment and finance made announcements and delivered addresses alongside such notable figures as Bill Gates and US climate envoy John Kerry, all gathered at the Al Waha auditorium in Dubai’s iconic Expo City to set out a roadmap for actions to address the impact of climate change on human health.

“Although the climate crisis is a health crisis, it’s well overdue that 27 COPs have gone without a serious discussion of health. No more,” Dr. Tedros said.

He reiterated WHO’s welcome of the new declaration to accelerate actions to protect people from growing climate impacts, endorsed on Saturday by leaders during the World Climate Action Summit.

Worsening impacts

Climate change is directly contributing to humanitarian emergencies spared by heatwaves, wildfires, floods, tropical storms and hurricanes. Those and similar climate shocks are only increasing in scale, frequency and intensity.

More than three billion people already live in areas highly susceptible to climate change, according to the UN health agency.

Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause tens of thousands of additional deaths per year from – from undernutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress alone.

These impacts on health and daily lives are being felt across the world, and the indigenous communities often bear the brunt.

Reudji Kaiabi belongs to an indigenous community in Brazil. He is a member of a delegation from a Brazilian youth organization, ‘Engajamundo’, attending the COP28 conference in Dubai, UAE.
UN News/Sachin Gaur

‘Hear and respect us’

UN News spoke to a delegate of a Brazilian youth organization named ‘Engajamundo’, a youth-led group focusing on tackling social and environmental challenges.

Reudji Kaiabi, belongs to the Kaiabi yudja people who live in the Aldeia Pequizal, Xingu, Mato Grosso region of Brazil, contains three main ecosystems: the Cerrado, the Pantanal and the Amazon rainforest.

“Even though our community is surrounded by forests, the changes have been affecting us a lot. We’re seeing a lot of heatwaves, our plantation is dying, the community is suffering. The river has started to dry, fishes are dying, and animals can’t live anymore,” he said painting a powerful picture of the ways in which climate change is impacting his homeland.

“This is my first time at COP, and my intention as an indigenous youth is to not just see change in my territory but the entire world. Our ask is to be heard, to be respected, and to be taken into account in the decision making,” he stated.

Building resilience to climate impacts

Delivering his remarks to the ministerial meeting, Dr. Tedros spotlighted several elements that are crucial to building effective responses to tackling the health and climate challenge:

He pointed that leaders must understand that it is critical to focus on the nexus of health and climate impacts, so that health can be mainstreamed into climate policies.

Engagement with communities is equally important, including with marginalized and vulnerable communities, who are often at the forefront of the climate challenge.

“Their perspectives in mitigation and adaptation efforts must be incorporated.” Massive investment in health services will be key to achieving these goals.

Dr. Tedros also underscored the vitality of cooperation among countries, learning from successful examples of other countries, and then implementing them in local contexts.

The way forward is clear: “We do not need to reinvent the wheel,” he underscored.

Want to know more? Check out our special events page, where you can find all our coverage of the COP28 climate conference, including stories and videos, explainers and our newsletter.

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