– by Jeni Miller – On 30 October, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced that Chile would be unable to host December’s UN climate negotiations, due to current  civil unrest in the country.

Members of leading health and development organizations from around the world have been working in collaboration with Chilean partners and with the World Health Organization to plan the Global Climate and Health Summit that was scheduled for December 7th. The Summit intended to highlight, in the context of climate negotiations, the profound threat that climate change poses to health, human rights, and indeed human survival. It aimed to bring together governmental leaders, health experts, youth and environmental advocates, to highlight the immediate keystone actions needed to turn around climate change, which health organizations have identified as a health emergency. Members of the WHO-Civil Society Working Group for Climate and Health were scheduled to join a High Level Meeting on climate and health as part of the COP25 formal events.

The issues being raised by protestors in the streets of Chile are directly relevant to the challenge of protecting people’s health and well-being in the era of climate change. Social and economic inequality, access to healthcare and public transport — all of these issues affect people’s vulnerability to climate change impacts and a society’s capacity to move ahead on climate action.

While climate change is already being felt in every region of the world, the impacts are not equally felt. Communities that lack economic security are far more vulnerable, without the resources they would need to respond when climate-related impacts hit. Individuals with compromised health status are more vulnerable to heat waves, air pollution, or infectious diseases. Significant economic inequalities also eat away at community cohesion, which is vital to a community’s resilience when crises hit. When it comes to climate mitigation, it should be obvious to Chilean political leaders, whose capital Santiago is a city plagued by air pollution, that public transportation is an important part of the solution and should be made more affordable, not less. Transforming our systems to ensure everyone has ready, affordable access to healthcare, clean energy and clean public transportation, and has economic stability, is both necessary and just.

In a country with the highest inequality in the region, the people of Chile are demanding change. Some of the protestors have paid with their lives, and many more have been injured, while calling for their government to ensure that everyone has equal access to the necessities of life and share in the fruits of the economy.

COP25 will be hosted in Madrid, Spain, and global attention may soon turn away from Chile with the international meetings now out of the picture. But the issues of social and economic equity elevated in the streets of Santiago have not gone away, not there and not globally. To protect the “right to health” in the face of climate change, as countries committed to do in the Paris Agreement, governments must respond to demands of the people of Chile, and similar demands elsewhere, not with military repression but with the transformative systems changes that deliver a more equitable and sustainable way of life.

COP25 may change venue. But the work to fight climate change can and must continue, the timeline we’re facing to avoid the most devastating scenarios has not changed. What Chileans have reminded us is that social justice and equity can and must guide that work.

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