Global climate action: A public health imperative

By: Louise Dettman
Article originally posted in Public Health Newswire

As the east coast braced for Hurricane Florence, around 250 leaders in government, national and international health met at the Global Climate and Health Forum on Sept. 12 in San Francisco.

The American Public Health Association was a proud sponsor of the day-long forum, an affiliate event of the Global Climate Action Summit, that galvanized momentum around key priorities to protect health in a changing climate. Speakers included former UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres, APHA Executive Director Georges C. Benjamin, MD, and US Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

During the event, Dr. Linda Rudolph of the US Climate and Health Alliance and Josh Karliner of Health Care Without Harm announced a Call to Action on Climate and Health, which establishes climate change as a global health emergency. The call describes 10 priority actions that are win-win strategies to promote climate justice and health equity.

Priority Actions
1. Meet and strengthen the commitments under the Paris Agreement.
2. Transition away from the use of coal, oil and natural gas to clean, safe and renewable energy.
3. Transition to zero-carbon transportation systems with an emphasis on active transportation.
4. Build local, healthy and sustainable food and agricultural systems.
5. Invest in policies that support a just transition for workers and communities adversely impacted by the move to a low-carbon economy.
6. Ensure that gender equality is central to climate action.
7. Raise the health sector voice in the call for climate action.
8. Incorporate climate solutions into all health care and public health systems.
9. Build resilient communities in the face of climate change.
10. Invest in climate and health.

APHA and over 50 other health and climate organizations have endorsed the call so far. These organizations represent 17,000 hospitals and over five million physicians, nurses and public health professionals in more than 120 countries. Read the Global Climate and Health Call to Action, and add your organizational endorsement.

Key Conversations
The Global Climate and Health Forum offered an opportunity for professionals to share global success stories of health action for climate and to generate momentum and commitments for action on climate and health. The forum’s Master of Ceremonies Dr. Howard Frumkin, head of the Our Planet, Our Health program at Wellcome Trust, listed key conversations echoed throughout the day:

  • Let science drive action. Strong scientific evidence backs the need for action on climate to protect health. About 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is occurring and is largely human-caused. “Climate change is here, it is impacting health right now and we have the tools to do something about it,” Dr. Benjamin noted.
  • Reduce air pollution. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 7 million premature deaths each year are attributed to air pollution-related diseases globally. The American Lung Association reports that just over 4 in 10 people in the US live in counties with poor air quality that increases the risk of heart and respiratory diseases and death. As Figueres said, “The piece that is still missing from the climate discussion is not data, but public outrage.”
  • Think across silos. To advance climate action for health, we must engage in coalitions of the unfamiliar, find unlikely partners and make friends across the divide.
  • Acknowledge the power of political leadership. Strong leadership matters. We must support leaders who are strong supporters of climate initiatives ahead of the midterm elections.
  • Communicate effectively. Health professionals are trusted messengers who have influential voices among patients and policymakers. Dr. Ed Maibach, director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, advised that climate and health communications should: (1) use simple and clear messages, (2) repeated often (3) by a variety of trusted sources.
  • Advocate for health. We must advocate upholding climate and health protections like the Clean Air Act, advocate against current threats to climate change protections like repeal of the Clean Power Plan and advocate for additional federal protections that mitigate climate change and advance health.
  • Protect human rights. We all have a right to breathe clean air, drink clean water and pass along a bright future to our children. Climate change undermines these rights.
  • Increase health equity. Those who have contributed the least toward changing climate are among those who stand to bear the greatest health burden, including children and people in impoverished communities. Rep. Pelosi encouraged acting on climate to protect indigenous and tribal communities.

Though climate change is harming health and equity, there is hope.

“Climate change is the greatest health threat, and opportunity, of the 21st century,” said Dr. Maria Neira of the World Health Organization. “And the health sector must lead the way and call on local, national and global policymakers to act now to significantly reduce climate pollution and build climate resilience.”