Health is the “bottom line” of the climate crisis, and the injustice of climate apartheid against the poor and most vulnerable in South Africa demands action from the country’s health sector as a whole.
This is why Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has been petitioned to take urgent action on climate, energy and health and to adopt an active position in steering the work of the recently- formed Presidential Change Climate Change Commission.
This is contained in a letter by the Climate Energy and Health Special Interest Group (SIG) of the Public Health Association of SA to Mkhize on November 18. It was sent to the Presidency and Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy.
The letter was penned by co-signatories: James Irlam, SIG chairperson; Diane Gray and Lori Lake, chair of the advocacy committee at the department of paediatrics and child health at UCT; and Coenraad FN Koegelenberg, president of the SA Thoracic Society.
“We noted that Minister Creecy confirmed the establishment of the Presidential Climate Change Commission in October,” the letter states.
“The objective of this Commission is ‘to become a key platform for facilitating SA’s just transition to a low carbon economy’. As the SIG focusing specifically on climate, energy and health issues at Phasa, we welcome the establishment of this Commission at Presidential level, we agree it should ‘begin in earnest’ and an inclusive just transition process goes beyond coal jobs.
“Moreover, it is our respectful view that the current levels of air pollution in parts of SA and the existential threat of climate change that we all face presents a public health emergency.
“The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries acknowledges there is already evidence that extreme weather events in South Africa are increasing, including heatwaves and prolonged droughts.
“This reality requires urgent action, driven by the Commission, and it’s crucial you, as Minister of Health, supported by your department, fulfil a co-operative and leading role in this process,” reads the letter.
Mkhize is compelled “to act and to act now”, because the World Health Organisation has declared air pollution a “global public health emergency” and considers air pollution the greatest environmental risk to people’s health.
“Chronic air pollution in parts of South Africa,” write the authors, “kills hundreds of people per year, mostly due to respiratory diseases.
Another reason includes the WHO estimates that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause about 250000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, and heat stress.
“Recognising the enormous threat of climate change, 20 countries have declared ‘climate emergencies’ to date, including Argentina, the UK, Canada, France and parts of Australia.”
Mkhize is compelled to act because the National Climate Change Response Policy states due to temperature increases expected, “life as we know it will change completely”, significantly affecting human health. Also, the Climate Change Bill, published in 2018, emphasises that climate change represents an “urgent threat to human societies”.
The authors state that among other objectives of the National Health Act, it must fulfil the rights of the people to an environment not harmful to their health and well-being as enshrined in the Constitution, and it requires the Minister of Health to “endeavour to protect, promote, improve and maintain the health of the population.
“As a first step, we implore you to adopt an active position in steering the work of the Commission; this is one of the endeavours to protect and promote the health needs of the population, including children, so gravely threatened by impacts of climate change.”
The SIG, the letter states, supports calls for an urgent and just transition from unsustainable polluting fossil fuels to cleaner renewables, that among other features, seeks to prioritise people’s health, preserve workers' livelihoods and build new capacity for the local renewable energy industry.
The letter and the Call to Action on Climate Energy Health (www.iol.co.za/saturday-star/news/health-professionals-should-support-landmark-deadly-air-case-34071076) is supported by Timothy Lloyd, attorney, Centre for Environmental Rights; Rico Euripidou, national advocacy co-ordinator, groundWork; Prof Leslie London, division of public health medicine, UCT; clinical epidemiologist Tawanda Chivese; Prof Hanna-Andrea Rother, division of environmental health, UCT; Prof Rajen Naidoo, school of nursing and public health, UKZN; Dr Caradee Wright, senior specialist scientist, SA Medical Research Council; People’s Health Movement SA; Dr Jeff Rudin, Alternative Information Development Centre; Dr Mayur Nath T Reddy, professor and head of the department of public health dentistry, Vydehi Institute of Dental Sciences, Bangalore, India.