Medical students: climate change policy nerds or hardline lobbyists?

Alice McGushin, International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations

The International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA) has been attending the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conferences of Parties (COPs) as well as the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) meetings for a number of years. The IFMSA is a federation of medical students’ associations from 121 different countries, representing over a million medical students. We are a delegation of six here at COP21 and for all of us this is our first COP experience.

For many of us, the UNFCCC has been negotiating our entire lives. But we feel these meetings and negotiations are all the more relevant for us than for those who have been present from the beginning.

We shall all be commencing our careers in the following few years and will be practicing medical professionals when the health outcomes of current decisions and actions become far more apparent, sometime around the middle of this century. Not only will climate change directly affect our own practice, but as health professionals it is our duty to advocate for the health of current and future patients and communities.

Climate change has been identified by The Lancet Commission as the biggest global health threat of the 21st century. The human health and welfare impacts of climate change were central to the definition of “adverse effects of climate change”, adopted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. However since this time, health has largely been forgotten in climate change mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage discussions.

In the Lima Call for Action, health was included under Article 19 for the examination of opportunities with high mitigation potential, including those with adaptation, health and sustainable development co-benefit over the 2015-2020 period. However, at the start of negotiations here in Paris, health has only been explicitly recognised in the preamble of the ADP draft agreement and as an option in Article 2.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released its own call to action to protect and address the human health impacts of climate change here in Paris. As representatives of the world’s future doctors, we are calling for a strong agreement that avoids unacceptable risks to human health. We call for stronger recognition of health in adaptation, with the integration of adaptation into public policies and actions.

Additionally, we must acknowledge the immense health co-benefits of mitigation and adaptation policies as a further incentive to take action on climate change. These health co-benefits are the result of cleaner air, greater physical activity, better diets and better housing from policies that move us away from fossil fuels and greenhouse gas intensive agriculture.

The health sector must lead efforts to address the health impacts of climate change by minimising our own carbon footprint and contributing to the development and implementation of policies.

But our duties extend beyond COP: We also have a role in educating our colleagues and the public about the health impacts of climate change and the health opportunities of action on climate change.

In our own efforts to educate current and future generations of young people, IFMSA has created a training manual on climate change and health. This manual gives a background on climate change science, mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage, politics and negotiations. It also covers the health impacts of climate change and the co-benefits of mitigation and adaptation policies in a language accessible to our young colleagues. In addition to information, the manual contains practical information on capacity building, including how to run a workshop, with suggested agendas and advice on advocacy and campaigning.

As young and future health professionals, not only will we be faced with the health impacts of climate change in our day to day practice over the coming decades, but we have the opportunity to lead change now to protect the health of our patients and our communities. We as individuals and as IFMSA will continue to take our own personal action on climate change and to advocate for progressive global outcomes.

As an Australian as well as a young public health and climate change advocate and educator, I must also acknowledge the great contribution of the late Tony McMichael to the development of research, knowledge and understanding in this space.