Issue 5: The Health Argument for Climate Action

A COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health from the World Health Organization
This week, thousands of climate scientists, activists, diplomats, and political leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland for COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference. Though the conference is held annually, this year is especially critical; with the planet already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius, the world must make a sharp pivot away from fossil fuels to limit warming below 1.5 degrees and avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. Contemporaneously with the meeting, U.S. lawmakers are scrambling to finalize a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure bill that contains key climate proposals. Though the most powerful part of the bill, the Clean Electricity Performance Program, was shot down by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, negotiations are continuing. As the nation with the highest CO2 emissions per capita, the world's eyes are on the U.S.; Biden hoped that having strong domestic climate policy in hand could position the nation to help advance robust international agreements to mitigate further warming. Key announcements from the Biden administration in the last few days have included regulations on methane and a commitment to end deforestation by 2030.

In the lead up to the meeting, the World Health Organization released a COP26 special report, urging COP negotiators to center health and equity in their summit discussions and commit to a sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The solutions-oriented report, entitled "The Health Argument for Climate Action" lays out 10 recommendations (below) for maximizing the health benefits of tackling climate change... and avoiding the worst health impacts. The report is dedicated to the memory of Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine year old girl living in London who died from an asthma attack that a coroner deemed was driven by excessive air pollution.
Image: WHO Report
In this issue of our newsletter, we do a deep-dive on four of these recommendations (take a look at the report to learn more about the others). Wondering about the other major report on climate change and health that was released recently-- The Lancet Countdown Report on Climate Change and Health? Stay tuned for our next newsletter.
Recommendation 1: Commit to a healthy recovery.

Action Points:

  1. Contact your political representatives to voice your support for ending fossil fuel subsidies, shifting money out of fossil fuels and into clean energy. 
  2. Align climate and health goals. Merge COVID-19 recovery efforts with the Paris Agreement goals and the WHO Manifesto for a healthy and green recovery.
  3. Prevent and prepare for the next pandemic.
  4. Follow the Health-in-All-Policies approach. 
  5. Commit to vaccine equity. 
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the interdependence of human health and the health of the planet. As we recover from the pandemic, we have an opportunity to shape the direction of legislation and spending to change our climate trajectory. The report recommends an economic recovery that prioritizes human health by ending fossil fuel subsidies, establishing measures that avoid returning to pre-pandemic air pollution levels, and retaining active transit infrastructure. The Global Recovery Observatory assesses every COVID-19 related fiscal spending policy for environmental impact; of the almost $17 trillion spent worldwide on COVID-19 recovery, they classify 21.5% of policies as "green".

Example: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti established a global Mayoral Task Force for a Green and Just Recovery from COVID-19
Recommendation 3: Harness the health benefits of climate action.

Action Points:

  1. Maximize and measure the health co-benefits of climate action at all levels of governance.
  2. Honor everyone’s right to health and adopt policies to safeguard this right.
  3. Bolster the science of health and climate change.
Climate action has enormous health co-benefits due to improvements in air quality, diet, and physical activity. Bolstering climate resilience also has health co-benefits via enhanced health systems and food security. Though they are well established, health co-benefits of climate action and the associated financial savings are rarely incorporated into policy budget calculations. Governments should commit to measuring, monitoring, and reporting on health co-benefits of climate interventions, utilizing tools like the Low Emissions Analysis Platform (LEAP).

Example: Bangladesh's government used the LEAP Platform to quantify the potential public health benefits achieved from air quality improvements associated with following the Paris Agreement.
Recommendation 4: Build health resilience to climate risks.
Image: WHO

Action Points

  1. Regularly conduct health-system-wide vulnerability and adaptation assessments.
  2. Develop and implement an evidence-based adaptation plan for health.
  3. Strengthen the resilience and sustainability of health systems and facilities.
  4. Close the financing gap for health adaptation and resilience.
  5. Protect health and advance climate justice by implementing health-promoting interventions in other sectors, including water, energy, food, and agriculture.
Healthcare systems need to simultaneously bolster mitigation and adaptation efforts. Vulnerability and Adaptability assessments enable governments to assess populations and regions most vulnerable to climate-related health effects, identify weaknesses in the health system’s ability to provide related care, and specify potential interventions. Iterative assessments serve as a monitoring tool for changes in disease risk and provide the framework to set evidence-based development goals. After conducting a V&A assessment, authors recommend creating a Health National Adaptation Plan, engaging other health-determining sectors like energy, water, sanitation and waste management, and infrastructure, in addition to the primary health system. Anticipating increasing health care needs in an unstable climate, governments should increase access, affordability, and sustainability of essential health services, allocating climate funding to health-related projects to close the financing gap.

Example: ClimApp is an EU-based app that integrates weather forecast data into human heat balance models to provide individual and population health risk warnings.
Recommendation 10: Listen to the health community and prescribe urgent climate action.
Image: Grist

Action Points

  1. Train the health workforce to respond to climate change. Update health curricula and provide training and support to prepare health workers.
  2. Take climate action in the health care sector. Transition to climate-resilient and sustainable health care.
  3. Enable health professional advocacy on climate change and health. Support peers and colleagues to effectively communicate on climate change and health.
  4. Protect the health of future generations. Support youth and vulnerable populations to protect the health of future generations.
  5. Join the largest ever alliance of health care institutions committed to a zero emission goal.
Health professionals are well-positioned as central change agents for climate actions. Many in the health workforce (including you all!) are already becoming vocal advocates for climate action. Report authors urge governments to lift up health professionals as climate health community leaders, training them to recognize, anticipate, and treat the health manifestations of the climate crisis. The healthcare sector should also lead by example by reducing its own outsized carbon footprint, taking steps such as decarbonizing the supply chain, moving toward net zero emissions, and reducing medical waste.

Example: The Nurses Climate Challenge aims to mobilize nurses across the U.S. and Europe to educate 50,000 health professionals about the health impacts of climate change by 2022.
Engage with COP from Afar:

This year, many elements of COP are open to the public and accessible virtually. Engage live with the ongoing negotiations at the links below:
Do you have other resources you use to learn about climate change and solutions, action items that you’d like us to share, feedback or ideas for our newsletter? Please share them here!
This newsletter was created by Karly Hampshire, Simona Martin, and Alia Badawi, and edited by Sheri Weiser, Arianne Teherani, Jennifer Zakaras, and Naomi Beyeler, on behalf of the UC Center for Climate, Health, and Equity.