Unprecedented consensus of health stakeholders demands ambitious climate action at 2015 Climate and Health Summit

Erica Parker, Global Climate and Health Alliance

On December 5th, the 2015 Climate and Health Summit brought together more than 300 health experts and policy-makers in Paris. World leaders are gathered in the French capital to close the deal on a universal agreement to tackle climate change. Six days into the negotiations, the Summit was a chance to reflect on the immense health impacts of climate change and the health opportunities of climate action, as well as a crucial opportunity for bold commitments to protect health.

In the weeks leading up to the Paris meeting, the health sector has stepped up to ensure that governments understand the health implications of our climate choices. Doctors, nurses, public health professionals, NGOs and students all over the world have been lobbying climate negotiators on global, regional and local levels, demanding ambitious action.

In the closing hours of the Summit, the results of combined declarations from every part of the health sector were released. Signatories represented more than 1700 health institutions, and 13 million health professionals. This unprecedented medical consensus demanded action to mitigate climate change, enhance the adaptive capacity of communities and health systems, and improve decision-making processes around health and energy policy areas. Among these signatories were 41 health systems, inclusive of more than 8,200 hospitals and health systems which had pledged to lead by example in reducing emissions and preparing for the impacts of climatic change.

Climate change threatens many fundamental determinants of health, from clean air, food and water security, to safe shelter and secure livelihoods. It affects both physical and psychological health and wellbeing in potentially profound ways. These impacts fall disproportionately on those who are most vulnerable to the impacts and least responsible for the emissions that cause climate change. However, the synergies between climate action and health action are significant, presenting great opportunities for intersectoral activities to further both agendas.

During discussions at the Summit, Dr Xavier Deau, President of the World Medical Association, urged health professionals to “become aware of our role in reaching a green future”. He argued that doctors have an ethical duty to act, and should be “whistleblowers on climate”. Professor Benoit Vallet, the Director General for Health in France, furthered these comments, suggesting that “health professionals have a duty to put health at the core of COP21.”

Two Ministers of Health, from Fiji and Tuvalu, shared moving stories of the impacts of climate change in their countries. Minister Satini Manuella of Tuvalu described the immense challenges faced when “all our health clinics have been washed away” and shared a wish that “the health impacts on the rest of the world be lesser than those for [his] country”.

A number of breakout sessions focused on success stories, such as the innovative adaptation measures coming from hard-hit regions of Bangladesh, Kenya and Brazil, now able to be shared through worldwide adaptation forums. Other sessions discussed how numerous health institutions are demonstrating climate leadership by drastically enhancing their own sustainability and resilience strategies, and saving money in the process.

With delegates from all six continents, representing the full spectrum of climate vulnerability and resilience, the message at the Summit was clear: climate change is impacting on our health now, and urgent action is required to mitigate health damages and help communities to adapt where prevention is already too late.

The 2015 Climate and Health Summit was a great success, but it is just the beginning of the road. The health sector wants to see real world improvements in the health of all populations. The catalyst for such a transition is a strong, universal and ambitious global climate agreement, in which the protection and promotion of health is a central principle. Can political will among negotiators in Paris match the aspirations of communities worldwide to tackle climate change and health in a unified manner?

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The Summit was coordinated by the Global Climate and Health Alliance in collaboration with the World Health Organization, the Ministère des Affaires sociales, de la Santé et des Droits des femmes français, the Société Française de Santé et Environnement (SFSE) and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), and our local implementing partner, the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL).

Photo: Asian Development Bank