This year, 2023, is a major year for climate and health. The health movement on climate change has grown dramatically over the past few years, as the health impacts of the climate crisis make themselves increasingly and dramatically felt in every corner of the globe; and as health professionals, health organizations, and health workers of all kinds see the important role we have to play in this work. Meanwhile, for the first time, health will be a significant focus at the UN climate talks in December.

*** free photo *** Photo: Vladimir Fedotov | Unsplash

As the front line of response for people’s health, health professionals and workers see first hand the health impacts of climate change – on the communities and patients we serve. And the health community has been stepping up, including in the last few years with two of the largest health mobilizations – on any issue – the 2020 Healthy Recovery letter, with sign on by organizations representing 40 million health professionals; followed by the 2021 Healthy Climate Prescription supported by organizations representing 46 million health professionals worldwide.

The momentum on climate and health has been growing, from the pioneering health NGOs that have been advocating on the climate and health nexus for many, many years (e.g. HEAL, HCWH, CAPE, CAHA, PSR); to major international health professional and student organizations (e.g. WMA, ICN, IPA, IFMSA, WONCA, WFPHA) whose statements and positions make such an impact; to the increasingly urgent calls from the humanitarian health community (e.g. IFRC, MSF). And from the street action and organizing of the most activist health groups (e.g. MedAct, Drs for XR); to the official international guidance of the World Health Organization. (See the list of GCHA members for many more organizations active on climate & health.) New organizations and individuals keep joining the movement, bringing valuable new perspectives, new energy, and new networks.

From the outset, health groups have called for health to be deeply integrated into climate policy making – both to get to the best policies for health; and to drive more ambitious climate action to protect people’s health. One of those calls has been for a “Health COP” – for health to be a central focus at the yearly international climate negotiations convened by the United Nations.

This year, the COP28 Presidency has committed to deliver an official, Presidency-level health programme, including for the first time ever, an official Health Day at the COP; an anticipated health ministerial meeting; and a Health Programme currently under development.

With this health focus for COP in 2023, many more health organizations than ever before are paying attention to the UNFCCC conference, and gearing up to play a role. Meetings and preparations are already underway, with climate and COP on the agenda at the recent Africa Health Agenda International Conference (Kigali) and at the Forecasting Healthy Futures Conference (Abu Dhabi). The upcoming World Health Assembly (May 21-30, Geneva) won’t have climate on the deliberative agenda, but WHO will host a Strategic Dialogue on climate change; and side events will address integrating health into the UN Global Stocktake, and the ‘climate-resilient and low-carbon national health systems’ initiative, ATACH. In May, GCHA will also be offering our annual COP Orientation sessions, to help health partners plan and prepare how they engage with COP.

A Health Day and health ministerial meeting at  COP offer an excellent opportunity to elevate the profile of health at the climate talks, and will, we hope, signal the start of integrating health into COPs for years to come. But there is more that we need out of the UN climate talks, to deliver a healthy future for the people of the world in the climate change era.

What does a “Health COP” need to look like to deliver that healthier future? What does it mean to put people and health at the center of international climate policy making? At GCHA we have some thoughts:

  • Climate change is impacting people’s health now. Governments must invest in adaptation measures, including in preparing health systems, in universal health care, and in integrating health considerations into adaptation across other sectors.
  • Adaptation is essential, but we will not be able to adapt to a 2.8°C world. Governments must hold fast to their commitments to limit warming to 1.5°C.
  • Fossil fuels have got to go. They harm people’s health, and are incompatible with a healthy climate future. A Health COP must deliver a commitment to phase out fossil fuels.
  • Energy access is essential for health. Governments must incentivize, invest in, and support a rapid and just clean energy transition.
  • Methane is a short-lived super-pollutant with 80+ times the warming effect of CO2. Governments must  take fast action to cut methane – as part of the full energy, food system, and waste system transformations we need to limit warming to 1.5°C.
  • Fossil fuel corporate lobbyists out of the talks. Fossil fuel companies have seeded doubt and hidden evidence about climate change and reaped profits for decades, while people around the world pay the price with our health and our lives.
  • Finance adaptation, mitigation and loss and damage – including health in all these areas. Finance and technical assistance for low income countries are needed to protect people’s health through climate preparation and response, and to make the system transformations for a healthy, sustainable future.

So what, then, is the health community’s role in all this? As the health sector we can show leadership by continuing to make health systems low-carbon and climate resilient; and by divesting health associations and organizations from fossil fuels. We can integrate climate change training into health professional education, and integrate climate change considerations into global health investments and programs.

Perhaps most importantly, the health community can use our trusted voices to push for effective climate action that protects people’s health – by speaking to media, by working to shape local and national policies, by engaging to influence the COP negotiations and decisions, or simply by being a voice in our communities and with colleagues to build support for critical climate policies.

It’s valuable, after so many years of working to elevate health in the COP context, to finally have a major official focus on health. Let’s use this opportunity to insist upon the bold, ambitious action we need to see, to secure a stable, livable, and equitable future for humanity.

by Jeni Miller, Executive Director, Global Climate and Health Alliance

This blog was included in the April 2023 GCHA Newsletter. If you want to receive our quarterly newsletter in your mailbox, you can subscribe here.


Photo: Vladimir Fedotov | Unsplash