Climate Change, Global Health Intimately Linked, UN Official Stresses

05-25-2016 - Lisa Schlein

GENEVA—Global health hinges on drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a chief mover in the field of climate change told delegates Tuesday at the World Health Assembly in Geneva.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, praised the groundbreaking Paris Climate Change Agreement signed by 177 countries and likely to come into force in the next year or two.  She says the deal is promising for both the climate and global health.

"In addressing climate change by reducing emissions, we are preventing the worsening of health conditions around the world,” she said, “and … by improving so many different conditions that can be improved through climate measures — such as improving food and water, food security and water safety — we are actually improving health conditions."

Failure to take action on climate change will cost between $2 billion and $4 billion a year in direct damage to health by 2030, Figueres warns. In addition, she says, one-sixth of all illnesses and disabilities come from vector-borne diseases — which will rise if climate change is not checked.  Those who will suffer the most are people in developing countries, she adds.

Of the 189 countries that have presented national climate change plans, only 15 percent have mentioned health as an important component, Figueres says, calling the statistic alarming.  "If, over the next five years, we do not fundamentally change what we are doing in the energy sector, in the transportation sector, in the building sector and all of those sectors that are emitting, we are in danger of reaching a tipping point in the atmosphere that will have a direct negative and profound impact on health around the planet for many, many decades," she stressed.

Figueres urged the WHO to use its authority in the health sector to spread the word that climate change and health are inextricably linked.  The bottom line, she says: Whatever is good for the climate is also good for global health.