On December 4, 2011, I attended the inaugural Climate and Health Summit in Durban, South Africa. The Summit was organized by Health Care Without Harm and other organizations and occurred simultaneously with the Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The goal of the Climate and Health Summit was to bring together actors from key health sectors to discuss the impacts of climate change on public health and solutions that promote greater health and economic equity between and within nations.
Climate change has brought about severe and possibly permanent alterations to our planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) now contends that “there is new and stronger evidence that most of the global warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.” These changes have led to the emergence of large-scale environmental hazards to human health mainly in the following areas:
- Poorer air quality and increased pollution leading to respiratory disease
- Increase in the spread of infectious diseases including diarrheal disease and insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever
- Reduction in the availability of land for farming due to floods, droughts and other dramatic weather changes, which leads to poverty and malnutrition
- Increase in the number of extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts and heat waves, which leads to substantial morbidity and mortality as well as economic loss
- More forced migration as families move to find food and water and end up living in crowded and under-resourced refugee camps
The impacts of climate change on health are, and will continue to be, overwhelmingly negative. To make the situation worse, the majority of the adverse effects of climate change are experienced by poor and low-income communities around the world, which have much higher levels of vulnerability to these impacts. This was a hot topic in Durban, where it was argued that the more developed countries should pay “climate debt,” that is, compensate the poor for damages suffered as a result of climate change.
One thing is certain: Climate change IS happening. It also impacts human health. Governments, societies and individuals need not only to adapt to the changes that have occurred but also to take steps to mitigate any further damage to our planet. There is no Planet B!
Janet Robinson is the Director of Research, Asia Pacific Region, and the Global Director of Laboratory Sciences for FHI 360 based in Bangkok, Thailand.
Watch videos and join the conversation at our LIVE coverage of the Climate and Health Summit here.