– by Jeni Miller – On September 23, the head of the United Nations, Secretary-General António Guterres, will host a UN Climate Action Summit in New York. “Our overarching goal is to raise ambition and get the world on track to limit global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Guterres says.
Guterres has his work cut out for him. We go into the Climate Action Summit with a world quite literally, on fire, at 1℃ of warming to date. Current national commitments to reduce carbon emissions are not enough and will lead to at least 3 degrees of warming; and even these commitments are not yet being fully met. Meanwhile many national leaders have been distracted by a range of issues from trade wars to internal politics to, of all things, extreme weather.
Indeed, around the world, the impacts of climate change are no longer distant or deniable. A European heat wave this summer drove temperatures in France to an unprecedented 45℃ (113℉), while temperatures in India hit 50℃ (123℉). Months-long drought in India has left villages empty, drought in Central America is driving desperate farmers to migrate northward, and across 14 countries in Africa, prolonged drought left 45 million people hungry. Cyclones in 2019, exacerbated by climate change, also affected tens of millions of people, with particularly severe impacts on children in already vulnerable communities. Just this month Dorian hit the Bahamas as a category 5 hurricane, leaving devastation in its wake.
Deaths, injuries and displacement, malnutrition, and the spread of water- food- and vector-borne diseases follow these climate impacts. Indeed, the health fallout can last months or even years after an extreme weather event or sustained, climate-driven changes.
The causes of climate change — fossil fuel-based energy and transportation, and industrialized food systems, as well as land use that burns or plows or paves over the earth’s recovery systems — have health impacts themselves, including, at the top of the list, the extensive health harms of air pollution on respiratory and cardiovascular health, and infant and child development. Mitigating climate change offers tremendous opportunities to improve health, through reduced air pollution, improved diets, and communities that support healthier, more active lives.
Affordable climate solutions exist — such as solar and wind energy; good public and active transportation systems; regenerative agriculture and healthier food systems; and better urban planning and land use. They offer multiple benefits to people’s health, local economies, and community well-being.
We’re making progress, but we must go much, much faster. Scaling these solutions on the timeline required will take wide-spread political will. We need incentives that favor climate solutions: policies to quickly phase out the use of fossil fuels; mechanisms to provide a just transition for those impacted by these changes, including enabling low and middle income countries to achieve sustainable development; and financing commitments designed to help us, equitably, achieve climate stability.
Young people, seeing the situation with a clarity their elders seem to lack, have taken to the streets in a growing global movement for climate action. In 100+ countries around the world, 1.5 million young people have joined youth climate strikes, demanding action. People across all walks of life, including world leaders, are taking note. Secretary-General Guterres will host a UN Youth Climate Summit the day before the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, and young people from the Fridays for the Future movement are being invited into dialogue with ministers, legislators, and international leaders.
Medical and public health professionals, traditionally cautious and selective about engaging in advocacy, are increasingly vocal in our calls for action to address climate change. Health workers have made it our professional commitment to protect people’s health. When reports from The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change and from the World Health Organization have found that climate change threatens to undo decades of progress on global health and exacerbate poverty and health inequities, we’ve taken note.
Medical societies and public health organizations have called climate change a “health emergency” and are insisting that addressing climate change must be a top political priority.
Many health professionals and health organizations will be supporting the September 20-27 student-led Global Climate Strike. In recent years conferences and events by health groups such as the International Federation of the Red Cross, the International Federation of Environmental Health, and the American Public Health Association have made climate change their focus. Many hospital systems are working to reduce their carbon footprint. Calls to Action with global sign on, in the US, and in Canada have stated in no uncertain terms that climate change requires an urgent response, to improve social equity and protect people’s health.
Health professionals will convene, with national and city leaders as well as health leaders and others, at the Global Climate and Health Summit alongside COP25 in December, to continue to drive attention to the global health emergency that climate change represents, and to call for the transformational action required.
This is the moment when we must embrace the challenge and rise to the occasion. Today’s leaders are the last politicians who, aware of the climate risks, still have the time and possibility to act. The UN Climate Action Summit will show us which leaders remain content to risk the health and well-being of everyone alive and generations to come, while those who take action will be remembered as the moral authorities of their time.