The fact that COP28 will host the first ever day dedicated to health and the first climate-health ministerial meeting speaks volumes.
After all, the Conference of the Parties (popularly known as COP) have been meeting under the aegis of The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change since 1995 when it first convened in Berlin.
Talk about leaving the most vulnerable people behind but hats off to UAE’s COP28 Presidency for getting this one right. On Sunday it was the ministerial indaba bringing together ministers of health, environment, climate, finance and other sectors with the mandate of coming up with more ambitious action to address the rapidly growing burden of climate change on health.
Dubai hosted the COP28 UN High-Level meeting on building climate-resilient health systems through partnerships like the Alliance for Transformative Action on Climate and Health (Atach), led by the World Health Organization (WHO). And what a gargantuan task they have in a societal sector in which the human cost of climate change is brutally debilitating and very often results in the ultimate sacrifice – death.
Never mind the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic which clobbered the world’s health and its fragile systems over the last four years, which exposed the entrenched inequalities especially in vaccine accessibility, production and pricing, and in general pandemic profiteering through corruption in health procurement processes.
The signs are that the health impacts of climate change especially, through catastrophic severe weather events and global warming, which has resulted in 2023 being the hottest year since records were collated, will get worse before they come under control with the vital caveat that humanity heeds the warnings, advice and lived experiences of scientists, clinicians, social activists, other stakeholders, especially front-line communities, who often disproportionately bear the brunt of the worst consequences of inertia and delayed action of politicians.
Climate-induced health impacts are affecting millions of people globally, from air pollution, infectious diseases, and extreme weather disasters. Access to clean energy is vital for quality health care and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 (Good Health and Well-being).
Coinciding with the opening of COP28 on November 30 was the release of WHO’s Annual Malaria Report 2023 which establishes a clear link between climate change and malaria.
Changes in temperature, humidity and rainfall can influence the behaviour and survival of the malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquito. Extreme weather events, such as heatwaves and flooding, can also directly impact transmission and disease burden. Catastrophic flooding in Pakistan in 2022, for example, led to a fivefold increase in malaria cases there.
“The changing climate poses a substantial risk to progress against malaria, particularly in vulnerable regions. Sustainable and resilient malaria responses are needed now more than ever, coupled with urgent actions to slow the pace of global warming and reduce its effects,” says Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general.
In 2022, there were an estimated 249 million malaria cases globally, exceeding the pre-pandemic level of 233 million in 2019 by 16 million cases, of which sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) accounted for a staggering 233 million or 94% of cases. In addition to the disruptions caused by Covid-19, the global malaria response has faced a growing number of threats, such as drug and insecticide resistance, humanitarian crises, resource constraints, climate change impacts and delays in programme implementation, particularly in high burden malaria countries, mostly in SSA.
And at what cost. Globally malaria claimed 608 000 lives in 2022, of which 96% were in 29 countries and four SSA countries – Nigeria (31%), DCR (12%), Niger (6%) and Tanzania (4%) – accounted for over half of all malaria deaths globally in 2022.
The most damning warning about the alarming convergence of factors that jeopardise the well-being of individuals, public health, and health-care systems on a global scale comes from the 8th annual report of the authoritative Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change (LCHCC), released in November 2023 in collaboration with WHO.
The LCHCC is an international research collaboration that independently monitors the evolving impacts of climate change on health.
The health impacts of climate change, says the Lancet report, are surging worldwide, causing a devastating toll on lives and livelihoods.
Adults over 65 years of age and infants under 1 year old, who are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat, are now experiencing twice as many heatwave days per year than they would have in 1986 – 2005.
Changing climate is accelerating the spread of life-threatening infectious diseases.
For example, says the Lancet report, warmer seas have increased the area of the world’s coastline suitable for the spread of Vibrio bacteria especially in Europe that can cause illness and death in humans by 329km every year since 1982.
This puts a record 1.4 billion people at risk of diarrhoeal disease, severe wound infections, and sepsis.
A holistic, health-centred approach is needed to address the climate crisis.
Health-centric climate action holds the potential to save millions of lives annually and promote health equity.
This approach upholds the human right to health, closely intertwined with the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
The WHO estimates that 7 million preventable deaths a year can be attributed to air pollution, and climate impacts like heat are a serious threat to human health with billions exposed to extreme heat and weather events in 2023.
New Delhi, in India, and Witbank, in Mpumalanga, South Africa, are two of the most polluted places on earth fuelled by the ravages of climate change, crop stubble burning by farmers, very high emissions from coal-fired power stations and petrochemical plants.
Lest we forget, spare a thought for the memory of 9-year-old Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah, who made history when a London coroner ruled that her death in 2013 was directly caused by air pollution after renowned asthma and air pollution expert, Professor Stephen Holgate, concluded that there was a direct causal link between Ella’s condition and levels of toxic gases and harmful airborne particles. You won’t find Ella’s name and tragedy inscribed in the annals of COP28 in Dubai!
* Parker is an economist and writer based in London