Health & Climate Activists Have High Hopes That US Climate Summit Can Open New Chapter
Boys play on a beach in Kiribati, one of the Pacific island states most threatened by rising sea levels due to climate change.

Climate activists have high hopes that at this week’s Leaders Summit on Climate, hosted by US President Joe Biden with forty other heads of state, climate change will be framed as a health issue that is exacerbating the risk of future pandemics, as well as causing seven million deaths a year right now as a result of air pollution and reducing already fragile crop yields critical to nutrition and food security.  

Climate activists are pinning these hopes on the Biden administration’s recent appointment of two well-known advocates of the health card in climate change negotiations – John Kerry, the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, and Gina MacCarthy, the White House climate advisor. 

“At the Leaders’ Climate Summit, I think we’ll see the US framing their climate commitments at least in part in terms of health,” said the head of Global Climate and Health Alliance Jenny Miller, in an interview with Health Policy Watch. “The US Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy is very knowledgeable about the health impacts of climate change and the health benefits of climate solutions.” 

Even during the Trump years, Kerry was pounding the pavement of climate meetings and interacting with health advocates. Pictured here with WHO’s former Assistant Director General Flavia Bustreo at the 2019 Madrid climate conference of parties (COP 25) – the last in-person meeting before the COVID pandemic.

Indeed, Gina McCarthy has been a regular on the podium of numerous health and climate events, dating back at least to the 2014 UN Climate Summit, when she headed the work of the US Environmental Protection Agency, under the Obama Administration. Kerry, US Secretary of State in the Obama Administration who led the US team negotiating the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, remained active on the climate issue in the dark days of Trump’s climate denial policies, including meetings with climate and health advocates. Last week, just ahead of the climate summit, Kerry shuttled to Shanghai for the first meeting by a senior Biden Administration figure with Chinese officials, and President Xi Jinping later confirmed he would attend the virtual summit meeting. 

Health, however, is not formally on next week’s agenda, and there is concern that a more traditional positioning of climate action as a solution that benefits economies and businesses could detract from a strong health case, Miller warned.

“While I do think that health may come up during the Summit, it’s not actually on the official agenda,” she said, adding. “If you’re talking about climate change and you’re not talking about the impact on people, you’re missing the boat.”

“At the Summit, I’m concerned that with a more narrow focus on economies, businesses, and on new technologies, rather than on making sure the solutions we pursue really deliver benefits for people, we won’t actually get those health benefits we could see,” she said. She added that a stronger representation of health ministers in future climate conferences, such as the UN COP 26, due to be hosted by the United Kingdom in Glasgow at the end of 2021, could help position climate change as an opportunity to improve health.

Climate change has increased droughts and water scarcity, reducing crop productivity and pastureland; increased food insecurity; and driven local conflicts and migration in Africa’s Sahel and beyond.

Still, a handful of countries have begun to draw more explicit links between climate change and health in their policies, such as Canada, which recently put health front and centre in its climate adaptation plan. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, the National Health Service recently committed to carbon neutrality by 2040. And in Latin America, countries such as Argentina are moving to integrate health into their national climate commitments, made under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

But “most” countries still have a long way to go, Miller notes, emphasizing the urgent need for bolder commitments across the board. In even the more health-and-climate conscious countries, carbon emissions have continued to increase in past years, she noted.

Concretely, the White House Summit aims to firm up a stronger consensus among the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, including the US and China, to limit the earth’s warming to no more than 1.5 C. In one hopeful sign, other leading state actors on the climate front, including India, the United Kingdom and Russia, have also confirmed their attendance. And while the final list of attendees hasn’t been published, it is expected that most other countries among the 40 invitees from Europe, Latin America, Africa, The Middle East, and Asia will follow suit.

Ahead of the summit, the United States and China released a historic joint statement, calling on countries to raise their level of ambition in fighting climate change, and cooperate on reaching carbon neutrality.

At the Summit, the White House has already said that the Biden administration will unveil an “ambitious 2030 emissions target” for the US, as well, to move towards the 1.5 °C goal, reversing four years of inaction under the former administration of Donald Trump, who backed out of the Paris climate agreement, bolstered the fossil fuel industry and relaxed regulations on climate and environmental pollution. Not coincidentally, Thursday’s opening session, 22 April, also coincides with the annual celebration of Earth Day.

Climate Change Is A Health Issue 
Maria Neira, WHO WHO Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health

Given that seven million people a year die from air pollution every year – mainly from the burning of fossil fuels – it makes sense to position climate change as a health issue, emphasized Maria Neira, WHO’s director of environment, climate change and health, who has previously said that “fossil fuels are literally killing us”. That framing, she argues, can help accelerate action on the climate front.

If you care about your lungs, you better care about climate change,” she said. “If we want to speed up action on the climate front, the most powerful argument is about health.” 

Tackling the causes of climate change, she stressed, has “enormous” health benefits, because the same dirty fuels that cause pollution in households, cities and rural areas also contribute one way or another to climate change. So curbing air pollution can both rapidly reduce some of the key climate change drivers, as well as reducing risks of cardiovascular, respiratory diseases and cancers, she pointed out.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, too, it is becoming increasingly clear that cllimate change has seeded the “ideal” conditions for more frequent and more devastating pandemics – increasing human encroachment on wilderness areas, leading to the release of new pathogens that previously circulated only among animal species in the wild. 

 “Today, up to 75% of all emerging diseases come from animals,” warned teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg earlier this week at a WHO press conference. “And as we are cutting down forests and destroying habitats. We are creating the ideal conditions for diseases to spill over from one animal to another, and then to us,” she said, adding: “We can no longer separate the health crisis from the ecological crisis, and we cannot separate, separate the ecological crisis from the climate crisis. It’s all interlinked, in many ways.”

Polluting Industries Must Pay The Real Price For Carbon Emissions 

Looking ahead to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, planned to take place 1-12 November, climate advocates must ensure that polluting industries pay a “serious” price for the carbon they are releasing into the atmosphere, added former spokesperson for the Paris Agreement of 2015, Nick Nuttall, who is co-hosting the Exponential Climate Action Summit-Financing the Race to Zero on Thursday as well. The event brings together thought leaders from the private sector, labour unions and civil society to talk about ways in which climate action can be accelerated, while creating more jobs and global development payoffs. 

“We need a proper price on pollution to make sure that people who continue to pollute like oil companies, and like heavy industries, actually have to pay a serious price for the carbon that they’re putting out into the atmosphere – as a way of generating finance for those that are doing the right thing,” said Nuttall, in an interview with Health Policy Watch

The income generated from pricing carbon, he added, would both encourage dirty industries to quickly reduce their emissions and help generate the working capital to support national and regional governments and cities that are working towards reducing their emissions.

There also needs to be a “clear message from people that have pensions and have investments in pension funds that we will no longer tolerate investment in those pensions in the shares and the stocks of companies that are causing harm to our planet,” he said, noting that some of the public motivation for that kind of divestment will come from growing public awareness about the health impacts of climate change. 

He said that the last three years have finally seen the finance sector tipping into “real action” on investments into more low-carbon and greener development. “Now it needs to achieve the required velocity to first halve emissions by 2030 and then net zero by 2050.”

Ultimately, the financial arguments are also linked to the health card as well: “We need to address climate change to protect human health, and this won’t happen if we don’t finance the transition, and fast… to protect our ecosystems [needed for health], and breathable, productive cities.” 

Image Credits: UNDP, WHO, Flavia Bustreo , Flickr – EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, Maria Neira.

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