03 November 2017

Tipping the Scale

“I don’t care about climate change.  It doesn’t affect me.” This is something that we hear often, and many still think that climate change is something remote, only related to extreme weather events in distant, exotic places. We rarely think that climate is increasingly affecting all of us.


Droughts are becoming more and more common. People in several countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America are dying from starvation, water- and vector-borne diseases. Disease patterns are changing rapidly and drastically.


More than 40 million people have been recently hit by monsoon rains and heavy flooding in South Asia. A quarter of a million pregnant women, new mothers and children under five are homeless and at risk of disease. Hurricanes and tropical storms are wreaking havoc upon many countries in the Caribbean and in the Americas.


Seemingly harmless, daily actions not only affect our planet, but they can affect all of us. We must keep up the climate action momentum—particularly in the area of health—during the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference, COP 23, taking place in Bonn, Germany from 6-17 November. Climate change has a severe impact on health: at least 12.6 million people die each year because of preventable illnesses from environmental causes.


The right to health is key to climate action; it must also be front and center in all discussions during COP 23 and beyond, including in disaster risk reduction efforts. Areas with weak health infrastructure—particularly in developing countries—will be the least able to cope with climate threats and disasters. Health systems strengthening is critical to ensure that health facilities resist.


Climate-related health costs will continue to rise—to between $2-4 billion per year by 2030—unless strategic investments in resilience are prioritized, with women, children, and adolescents, at their core. Women, children, and adolescents—particularly girls—have a crucial role to play as front-line responders and are key for the survival and well-being of their families and communities during extreme weather events. They also make an important contribution to disaster reduction, acting as agents of social change.


The Every Woman Every Child Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health is helping foster more resilient individuals and health systems, as well as promoting quality and equity in health. When reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health is upheld, everyone benefits: individuals, families, communities and nations.


Pollution: a rising threat


Closely related to climate change, rising pollution levels are a serious threat to health and well-being. No country is unaffected by pollution and it is human activities including industrialization, urbanization and globalization that drive pollution.


The World Meteorological Organisation Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, launched ahead of COP 23, takes stock of the current situation. According to the report, levels of CO2 surged at “record-breaking speed” to new highs in 2016: carbon dioxide concentrations reached 403.3 parts per million in 2016, up from 400 ppm in 2015.


By the same token, the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change found that global exposure to dangerous levels of air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels had increased by 11.2% since 1990 with more than 70% of cities exceeding WHO limits. Nearly 90% of the population living in cities worldwide is breathing air that fails to meet air quality guideline limits. This increases the risks of pneumonia and premature births.


Recently published reports also draw attention to these risks:


  • Pneumonia & Diarrhea Progress Report, which monitors country progress toward child health goals, and identifies opportunities for action, including: 1) scaling up interventions; 2) focusing on cross-cutting challenges; and 3) continuing partnerships between countries & donors.


  • Fighting For Breath, a new report that calls on governments & organizations to commit to saving lives threatened by pneumonia. Pneumonia deaths are falling more slowly than other causes of child death, and the report sets out strategies that could save 5.3M lives from pneumonia over the next 15 years, making the case for Pneumonia Action Plans to be integrated into wider health system strategies.


Pollution is a symptom and unintended consequence of unsustainable development. If we want to substantially reduce the global environmental burden of disease, we need to address the drivers and sources of pollution to cultivate a healthier and safer environment.


We need to care about climate change. It’s up to us to tip the scale.