Experts are urging the international community to act fast to reduce climate change and its health consequences at the first-ever global conference on health and climate, which opened today at the Geneva headquarters of the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO).
“The evidence is overwhelming: climate change endangers human health,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “Solutions exist and we need to act decisively to change this trajectory.”
Measures to adapt to climate change could save lives around the world by ensuring that communities are better prepared to deal with the impact of heat, extreme weather, infectious disease and food insecurity, according to experts.
The conference brings together over 300 participants, including government ministers, heads of UN agencies, urban leaders, civil society and leading health, climate and sustainable development experts.
Experts say the health sector must act quickly to promote climate-smart strategies. The health community is working hard to improve its capacity for surveillance and control of infectious diseases such as cholera, malaria and dengue, which are highly sensitive to weather and climate.
Climate change is already causing tens of thousands of deaths every year from shifting patterns of disease, from extreme weather events, such as heat-waves and floods, and from the degradation of water supplies, sanitation, and impacts on agriculture, according to the most recent WHO data.
“Vulnerable populations, the poor, the disadvantaged and children are among those suffering the greatest burden of climate-related impacts and consequent diseases, such as malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition, which already kill millions every year,” noted Dr. Flavia Bustero, WHO Assistant Secretary-General on Family, Women’s and Children’s Health.
“Without effective action to mitigate and adapt to the adverse effects of climate change on health, society will face one of its most serious health challenges,” she said.
The conference paves the way for careful consideration of health and climate issues at the upcoming UN Climate Summit, which Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is convening in New York on 23 September.
In a video message to participants, the Secretary-General urged that “we must prepare and adapt” because “extreme weather threatens lives.”
“Many dangerous diseases are sensitive to climate conditions. And air pollution adds greatly to the global burden of death and disease.”
Meanwhile, Christina Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), warned that as the world becomes hotter and more populated, and as the demand for food, water and energy grows, health impacts will exponentially spread, potentially overpowering the response capacity of health and disaster reconstruction sectors.
“However, climate change is not the disease. Climate change is actually the symptom. The disease is something we rarely admit. The disease is humanity’s unhealthy dependence on fossil fuels, deforestation and land use that depletes natural resources,” Ms. Figueres said in her statement to the conference.
She said that at the heart of an effective response is the challenge to take responsibility and make tough decisions to “change patterns that have been at the base of our development over the past 100 years, if we are to prevent severe worsening of health and quality of life conditions over the next 100 years.”