If you thought the COVID pandemic was devastating and deadly, climate change is going to be much worse. So many panellists said Tuesday at the UN climate talks in Glasgow, warning of an escalation of climate-related health threats such as disease, heatstroke and air pollution. But they also called health systems in rich countries part of the problem, as the health sector accounts for up to 5 percent of global carbon emissions.
“We need to recognize the role of health systems as sources of emissions,” said Rachel Levine, US Assistant Secretary of Health. “We cannot back down and just tell others what they should do to protect our patients.”
The main sources of emissions from the health sector include the production and transportation of medical goods, and the construction and operation of hospitals and clinics.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that dozens of governments have pledged to cut emissions from their health systems or go to zero entirely. Speakers also called on countries to prepare for more climate-related diseases and casualties.
Climate change is already hurting food and water security, while deadly heatwaves and floods are hitting communities around the world. Medical systems are often stressed if not damaged by such events.
Fiji’s ambassador to the UN, Satyendra Prasad, described the challenge of keeping health facilities running amid severe storms and floods that hit the Pacific island nation. “It’s quite tragic when your doctors and nurses are evacuated on their own when they have to provide advanced services,” he said.
Fiji is also seeing an increase in waterborne diseases as a result of flooding after storms, he said. Vulnerable countries need money to move health facilities to higher ground and train health workers to tackle climate-related health problems, he said.
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, now WHO’s ambassador for global health financing, has called on rich countries to keep their pledge to commit $ 100 billion a year to climate finance for poorer countries. The money can be used to support healthcare around the world, he said.
Doctors believe that the best way to prevent an increase in public health risks is to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Editorial in 233 medical journals. called for the same, stating that exceeding the 1.5 ° C threshold carries the risk of “catastrophic health damage that cannot be remedied”.
“Although COVID was a deadly disease, climate change will take more lives in the next 50 to 100 years than anything that [the coronavirus] illness will do, ”Brown said. “We need to maintain 1.5 degrees for millions of people to survive.”