Health in a changing climate

I am currently in Warsaw, Poland for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP19). On 16 November, I attended the Climate and Health Summit, which was organised by the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA). I was particularly interested in this event as I have a narrow understanding of the complex climate change and health interconnections, especially around issues of mental health and well being.

With the tragic events of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines so recent, I wondered how other vulnerable countries, with less social welfare and support programmes in place, would meet development goals after such calamities. There is enough to deal with when you have lost loved ones, your community, home and all your basic possessions. And when people are displaced, there are so many other complex issues that come into play. For instance, as Liz Hannah from the Australia National University highlighted: ’there are an increase in rapes and sexual assaults among displaced communities.’

Building of collective momentum among the health community

At the summit, multiple presenters argued that climate change is a health issue and the sector should not be shy about participating in this dialogue. Even though the Copenhagen Accord only mentions health once, there are hopeful signs, which Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum from the World Health Organisation outlined as:

  • The public identifies with the correlation between health and climate change.
  • The World Health Assembly has a resolution to act on climate change.
  • There are expanding programmes on health adaptation although there is now a need to try institutionalise programmes.
  • There are new initiatives supporting climate change mitigation. This includes decreasing air pollution and its effects.

But the health community needs to be working at a larger scale, learning and leveraging from initiatives that have had major successes in the sector. This includes the public health action from the tobacco industry as well as the campaigns and work on HIV/AIDS programmes. The health sector is not poor, as one of the participants noted, but how do we make sure that money is being funnelled into these programmes?

Links between nutrition, health and climate change

What we put into our bodies is also a significantly important part of the discussion. Christina Tiraldo, a Professor at the School of Public Health at UCLA provided an interesting insight into some of the key links and challenges in building synergies in the nutrition and health sectors in a changing climate, especially as we work towards a Rio+20 world. She noted that Climate Smart Agriculture needs to have a nutritional component.

If not us, who: If not now, when?

And while the health sector engages in this debate, the youth of today, represented by the International Federation on Medical Students Associations (IFMSA) emphasised their need to be engaged in this process. Building the capacity of medical students across the globe so that they can develop the confidence and skills to lead in this dialogue sounds like a worthy investment. After all, as Charlotte Holm-Hansen from IFMSA noted: ’this is not just a role for middle aged white men to be playing’.

By Fatema Rajabali, Climate Change Convenor, Institute of Development Studies

Originally posted on the IDS Knowledge, Technology and Society blog. Re-posted with permission.

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