“Since 2008 the WHO has shown leadership in raising awareness of the threats posed by climate change to health. Specifically, WHO has provided evidence, technical guidance and piloted approaches to protect health from climate risks”.
With these words the World Health Organization sets the tone for the “WHO conference on health and climate”, held 27-29th of August in Geneva. Applauding that many countries have already made important progress in protecting the health of their populations from climate change, it is hoped that the conference will encourage and support more countries to do the same.
This month’s Bulletin also devoted several articles to the issue. One describes WHO’s engagement in building resilience to climate risks by increasing the capacity of national health systems to adapt to its effects. China, for example, is establishing a city-specific heat-wave warning system with a range of awareness raising and education initiatives; including dedicated websites, mobile phone text alerts and messages on large format electronic screens in public spaces. “Today’s maximum temperature: 34°C. Minimum temperature: 26°C. Relative humidity: 70%. Air quality: good.”
A positive message runs throughout: we can save the planet and save lives at the same time (so-called “health co-benefits” of certain mitigation policies). “With smart policy and full engagement from the health profession, the ‘doom and gloom’ message of the impacts of climate change can become a story about the healthy, sustainable world that we can create, together.”
The adaptation adagio
Striking in WHO’s work around climate change is a focus on adaptation – getting prepared for the effects of climate change – rather than mitigation – trying to stop it from happening. It seems the Organization has (again) decided to go for a technical approach instead of tackling problems by addressing root causes. Nowhere does the saying “prevention is better than cure” apply better than here, and still WHO has gone down the drain of accepting what could still be avoided. Focusing on “technical guidance” and “piloted approaches to protect health from climate risks”, the problem is portrayed as a technical one and stripped of its political context. While sending mobile phone text alerts to people with health failure and old age during a heat wave to “Pls stay home today, life @ risk”, the Organization is also sending the implicit message to oil companies and big business to “Please go ahead, we will clean up the mess”.
“Happily ever after” or “David vs. Goliath”?
When it comes to mitigation, the WHO tries to convince us that bringing health into the equation will pave the way for a smooth transition to a carbon-neutral society. The omnipresent positive message that eventually we will save the world from climate change ánd at the same time improve health and foster economic growth shows a lack of understanding (or unwillingness to talk about) the political economy behind this hellish challenge. The promise of the Green Economy – “saving lives, saving money” – has pervaded international negotiations, UN institutions and governments alike. We are led to believe that saving the planet is a “win” for all sectors of society. A careful examination of economic interests teaches us otherwise. There are very big players – wandering around in the corridors of government buildings – that have a strong interest in either halting an effective climate deal or making money out of it. Big oil, coal and gas industries have already invested millions of dollars in fossil fuel reserves now still under ground. They will not allow governments to sign a deal that implies these reserves cannot be exploited. It is also financial interest that is driving the idea of the Green Economy. Proposed solutions are hidden ways to make money; promoting a whole range of new commodities (“green consumerism”) and creating new markets through privatization of public goods (air, forest, water). The ultimate aim is not to save the planet nor save lives, but to increase profit. In the end some will have gained, but most of us will have lost. As long as we choose to uphold a system in which the accumulation of profit in the hands of a few at the expense of others and our natural environment is the ultimate goal, we will never find a truly just solution to the climate and social crises we are currently experiencing.
Unfolding the truth behind the “happily ever after” message of the Green Economy does not mean I don’t believe in a better future. But we need to realize that conflict will occur along the way. The choice of the UN institutions to forge a ‘global compact’ with big business shows clearly which side they are taking and, for me, is emblematic of the deep legitimacy crisis in global governance – which is not limited to the climate negotiations. Over the past years we have witnessed protest; citizens reclaiming power and confronting the corporate capture of government institutions at all levels. Climate change has the potential to link these different struggles and turn them into a global force. As greenhouse gases pile up in the atmosphere while our governments walk hand in hand with industry representatives, more and more extreme (weather) events will take place all over the world, as Naomi Klein argues in her next book: This Changes Everything.
Fortunately, WHO is already buckling up.