When I first arrived as an Emory delegate to the United Nations climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany last June, my focus was on the health impacts of climate change. I’m a current Master of Public Health student so I’m used to considering health in everything I do. And with changing weather patterns, increased natural disasters, shifting food systems and other risks, climate change has become a global health threat that’s difficult for anybody to ignore.
But as I attended climate negotiating sessions during my week in Bonn, health was hardly on the table. In most of the meetings and presentations I attended throughout the week, health received occasional mention, if it was brought up at all. Health concerns seemed to be the elephant in the room that everyone vaguely acknowledged but avoided addressing directly.
This neglect flies in the face of World Health Organization (WHO) warnings that the climate crisis is creating a global health emergency. In 2021, 7 million people died due to air pollution and 5 million from extreme temperatures. All were avoidable. Over half of known human pathogens, including the coronavirus and monkeypox, are likely to be aggravated with the changing climate. The WHO projects climate change will create additional health costs of up to $4 billion per year by 2030.
International officials predict the peril to world health will worsen, particularly in vulnerable developing countries. Attention to climate impacts on health are growing: young people in health careers show growing awareness, climate concerns factor into patient care, and university and healthcare systems increasingly prepare to meet the climate challenge. But we need to do a better job educating negotiators, activists, and the public about the climate-health nexus.
UN meetings should be among the first places to make health concerns more relevant to climate discussions. I had the opportunity to attend the final meeting for the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture. In this framework, negotiating countries work together to develop support for agricultural systems in the changing climate. The resulting document from this meeting included no mention of nutrition, transition to more sustainable foods, or food security issues. It was almost entirely focused on carbon capture from agriculture.
It wasn’t until after the document was formally submitted that observing constituencies were asked to comment. The UN-led global coalition of youth delegations (YOUNGO), the Food and Agriculture Organization, and a number of other groups all highlighted how the current plan was not nearly comprehensive enough. Given the intrinsic link between diet and health, the World Health Organization also opted to comment. They highlighted their role as the custodian for the second Sustainable Development Goal, Zero Hunger, and reminded negotiating leaders that Zero Hunger means the sustainable provision of quality, nutritional foods - something that had been neglected thus far.
In other sessions, financing for the loss and damage already caused by climate events was a major point of discussion. In these conversations it was reiterated that those in poverty bore the brunt of the effects of climate change, but negotiators never outright acknowledged that so many of the ways climate change more severely impacts impoverished people is through mechanisms related to health and wellbeing. Even when things like flooding, displacement, and migration were discussed, the health component was, at most, briefly touched on.
Although official negotiations lacked public health conversation, it was definitely present during discussions held by observers from non-government organizations and other groups who were not official negotiators. The first event that I attended was a panel by the World Health Organization covering climate and health efforts. This panel spotlighted steps already underway by the UNFCCC, including the COP26 Health Programme spearheaded by the UK government. Sixty countries signed on to one or both of two commitments: one involving the development of climate resilient health systems and the other involving the decarbonization of health systems. These efforts are designed to be expanded upon over time, and the World Health Organization hopes that UN member countries will continue to acknowledge health as part of their climate commitment.
I came away from the climate discussions hopeful that change can start when people who care about issues encourage their institutions to improve. Emory plays a central role in Atlanta healthcare, and values student and stakeholder opinions. As individuals, we need to advocate strongly for our beliefs, whether it’s working to improve our schools and communities or voting on a national scale. Advocacy and education on public health issues are just the first steps towards change, but they are essential ones. Eventually, with enough engagement, these issues will become a key part of climate conversations.