The world needs to rapidly scale up efforts to reduce climate-related risks to health, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned, adding that failure to provide adequate mitigation and adaptation measures could pose unacceptable risks to global public health.
“Solutions exist and we need to act decisively to change this trajectory,” Margaret Chan, WHO director-general, told delegates at the first ever conference hosted by the global agency on health and climate change.
“Debates about climate change are still not giving sufficient attention to the profound effects that climate variables have on health. In my view, the well-documented health effects are what matters most,” Chan noted.
According to estimates by the global health agency, between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause about 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress, and the direct costs to health will be between US$2bn and US$4bn per year by 2030.
In a video statement to the conference, Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group, said: “As a medical doctor, trained in infectious disease, I can tell you that climate change, health and international development are inseparable. We know that climate change is a fundamental threat to development in our lifetime.”
“We also know that some of the most serious impacts will be on public health,” the former senior WHO official added. “Heat stress, malnutrition, infectious disease, to name just a few, are all impacted by climate change, and will affect the poor first, and most heavily. Climate change requires unprecedented adaptation, and mitigation measures, to protect both the planet and the poor. Our climate and health investments have to be catalytic and in a scale to address this global challenge.”
Alistair Woodward, coordinating lead author of the health chapter of the 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told reporters there is a “growing appreciation of the risks if we stay on our current track of emissions; we’re heading not for a 2 degree [increase in global temperatures] by 2100, far from it, we’re heading to a 4 degree [increase] and higher.”
“If we put in practise [measures to reduce] black carbon emissions — diesel filters, clean cook stoves — than we could probably save around two million premature deaths a year, as well as halving the degree of warming occurring between now and 2050,” Woodward argued.
Maria Neira, WHO director for public health, environmental and social determinants of public health, said in an interview: “It is not just an environmental agenda, this is about public health. We are talking about the way we will be consuming and producing, the way we will be designing our views on the environment. And this is also about stressing the health systems [by] generating more demand in terms of having more climate sensitive diseases to tackle.”
Chan is expected to convey the key messages from the three-day conference to world leaders due to attend a UN climate summit to be held in New York on 23 September 2014.