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Far Away, Yet So Close: Musings on climate and health action

By Remco van de Pas
on November 13, 2017

On a rainy, misty day I found myself travelling early in the morning to Bonn, Germany. The former capital of West Germany (for the younger readers of this blog ) hosts this year’s annual global climate change negotiations, the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP 23) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). My destination was not so much the COP23 itself, but a (highly relevant, I prefer to think ) side event, the Climate and Health Summit 2017. On the train, I did not only notice conference delegates in speckless formal suits and fancy dresses, but also tons of people dressed up in weird costumes, some already consuming (tons of) alcohol,  in preparation for the start of the Cologne Carnival. It was striking to see these different ‘worlds’ together in one space, so close but also so separated in many ways. It made me reflect for a moment on the climate and health network, as it is now, and how this network relates to other ‘communities’.

At the summit, Maria Neira, Director of Public Health and the Environment, WHO presented some of  the worrying figures on the impact of environmental pollution which causes 23% of all global deaths, currently. Put differently, 12.6 million of lives can be saved per year, if we would get this right.  The current pollution crisis in Delhi is a stark reminder of the (dire) situation, in case it’s still needed.  Nick Watts from the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change presented the 2017 report.   The rest of the day featured interesting panels and a “world café” format where participants discussed different sorts of inter-sectoral health mitigation and adaptation measures, as well as the role of the health sector and health professionals in this area till now, and hopefully, in the future.

It’s wonderful to see that the global climate and health alliance has grown so strongly over the last years after it was formed during the COP in Durban in 2011. It is a much needed alliance, too, as a collective global health network, knowledge hub, and advocacy have all been sorely missing in the climate debate till recently. Fortunately, that is changing now, long overdue. In Bonn, health is now (finally) a rather important topic, as a stark sentinel indicator on the impact of climate change, and also a key factor for adaptation and mitigation programs.

Still, the network can and should be strengthened further, including in terms of its linkages with other groups. Firstly, there are many global health networks out there, with many valuable ‘causes’ (e.g. on UHC, NCDs, Every woman, Every Child etc.). Not much coalition building (and coordination) between these networks has taken place so far to broaden the health cause at other fora (for example the climate related one). Secondly, the network mainly consists of white, high-educated, well-connected, Anglophone, public health professionals (I fit the bill pretty well, I admit 🙂 ). More diversity in terms of socio-cultural aspects, language and professional background could deepen the network and its representation. Lastly, there was hardly any representative from other sectors at the summit. We were preaching to the converted, once again, while what is urgently required now is real engagement (including tough advocacy, and political “fights” (in the positive meaning of the word)) with those member states and actors investing in energy, agriculture, mineral resources  etc. The public health community is in general not very well equipped to do so, so it needs to seek alliances with (typically more politically skilled) environmental justice groups, farmer movements and food activists, etc.   Such a young global health alliance should get the time and space to develop itself, but the (urgency of the)  challenge requires it to move fast and with clear strategic directions on political aims, allies and enemies.

As for WHO, the organization organized its own COP23 high-level meeting on health actions to implement the Paris agreement, on 12 November. WHO DG Tedros spoke there, and no one less than “honorary” (?) Arnold “I’ll be back” Schwarzenegger had a key note. Speaking of political “heavyweights” to enroll in the climate fight  🙂 .   The former governor of California is currently heading the R20 Regions of Climate action foundation so The Terminator keeps coming back. In the fight against climate change that’s probably not a bad thing.

I could unfortunately not join all this excitement and returned home in the evening, making my way through piles of plastic garbage, empty cans, bottles littering around, and of course, many drunk folks. The world of health and climate change negotiations still tantalizingly close, yet so far away.

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