Floods, wildfires, drought and the onslaught of extreme weather are driving a global health crisis that must be put at the centre of climate action, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday.
“The climate crisis is a health crisis; it drives extreme weather and is taking lives around the world,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, said. “Melting ice caps and rising sea levels are, of course, crucial issues, but for most people they are distant threats in both time and place. The threats of our changing climate are right here and right now.”
Tedros was speaking at a New York climate week event on links between global health and the climate crisis. The Cop28 climate summit in Dubai in December will hold a global health day for the first time, where health issues in the context of the climate crisis will be discussed.
The president of Malawi, Lazarus Chakwera, said the addition of the global health day was “necessary and long overdue”. He noted that a series of tropical cyclones in quick succession had led to the worst cholera outbreak in Malawi’s history and left a trail of destruction affecting more than 2 million people.
Malawi ranked as one of the nations most vulnerable to climate change, he said, and “strengthening healthcare systems and infrastructure is paramount to withstanding climate-related disasters”.
There were warnings about what might happen next in Libya following catastrophic floods that have already killed thousands in the port city of Derna, with the danger of waterborne diseases adding to the death toll.
“The number of deaths and injuries resulting from climate-related disasters will continue to rise unless we urgently implement climate adaptation and mitigation measures,” Chakwera said.
Dr Vanessa Kerry, newly appointed as the WHO’s first special envoy for climate change and health, said: “Climate change is a health crisis. We know that 7 million people a year die of air pollution. That is more than one person every five seconds and more than we saw in the entire Covid pandemic.”
Kerry, the daughter of the US climate envoy and former secretary of state, John Kerry, is founder of Seed Global Health, which trains medical staff in developing countries. Kerry said concrete measures that could be taken included training more health workers and building a more resilient infrastructure, including ensuring that medicines were available and hospitals were built to be more resilient to extreme storms, for example, using green and solar energy.
Giving wildfires and the flooding in Libya as examples, she added: “This is a daily occurrence now. But they have real health implications and the problem is we have to adapt because if people are getting sick today from climate change we have to be able to care for them. But we also have to prevent the problem and that’s where investing in the health system becomes important.”
The Cop28 president and UAE’s envoy for climate change, Sultan Al Jaber, said the relationship between health and climate change was “crystal clear”, from air pollution to vector-borne and water-borne diseases, and that “the people most exposed to climate health impacts live in communities with the fewest resources”.
“Cop28 is determined to shine a light on these issues and bring partners that can make a change and produce positive contributions,” said Al Jaber, who is also the United Arab Emirates’ envoy for climate change. “Improving health systems also depends on improving climate finance and that is a critical pillar of our action agenda at Cop28.”