Medical students, climate change and tricky negotiations: Does it make any sense?

Claudel P-Desrosiers, International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA)

For many years now, medical students, as part of the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA), have been attending the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COPs), with the objective of making sure that health was not left out of the climate change discussions.  As the doctors of tomorrow, we are deeply concerned about the unhealthy environments in which our future patients are most likely to live in, if no ambitious actions are taken today to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Climate change is the biggest threat to health of the 21st century. Yet, sadly, many people - government negotiators included – still do not see the numerous ways in which climate change and health are intrinsically linked. Health was only mentioned once in the 200 page draft agreement proposed at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, and only one per cent of the global climate funds have been allocated to health projects in the past years. Furthermore, out of the 13 main economic models to inform climate mitigation decisions, only one incorporated health co-benefits. This is not enough.

As health students we demand more, for ourselves, for our patients and for the future generations that are yet to be born. We demand that decision makers negotiate for policy measures which address health and well-being. We are challenging the status-quo, and we are refusing to accept that the boat would sink if health was added to the discussion, as Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, suggested when she met with the youth representatives earlier on this week.

This year’s negotiations have not been any different, until this past Saturday. On December 6th, we saw the boat shifting toward a new, healthier direction. Five countries – Brazil, Canada, Australia, United States and Saudi Arabia – have been vocal in asking the co-chairs of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) to include health co-benefits in articles 30a and 31d. We know they were also supported by many others, from all regions of the world, because in the past five days, we have been on the ground presenting, explaining, and advocating our ideas to hundreds of delegates.

This is why we are attending COP20 in Lima, and this is why students, and more generally young people, have to be present at these high-level conferences. We are determined enough to arrive at the negotiations, our heads filled with our biggest and most ambitious dreams – and we work tirelessly to make sure they become reality.

In addition to being strong health advocates at COPs and within other UN processes – such as Rio+20 and the Open Working Group sessions on the Sustainable Development Goals – IFMSA has been training and educating medical students worldwide, and has led international campaigns on climate health for several years now. These activities represent the key to building a generation of health professionals who understand the potentially devastating impacts of climate change on public health.

As medical students and future health professionals, it is our moral obligation to speak up, our duty to act and our responsibility to reach out to policy-makers. If we want to be true to ourselves and build a more resilient and sustainable world, health must be fully integrated into our actions, and shall be seen both as a driver and outcome of development. Climate change is our biggest opportunity to improve the health and wellbeing of populations around the world, including the most vulnerable and the poorest.

COP20 in Lima will give us a roadmap that will lead us to a world with sustained and rapid emissions reductions, as it will play a crucial role in building the draft of the Paris 2015 agreement. We firmly believe that, with respect to health co-benefits, commitments for climate change will finally be seen as opportunities for countries.

We are the first generation to truly feel the effects of climate change, but the last one that can act and change the course of history. There is no magic pill, there is no planet B, we need to bring the two agendas of health and climate change together, now.

Claudel P-Desrosiers is Vice-President for External Affairs at the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA)

Website:, Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.