Pollution kills and it kills, at least, nine million people every year costing trillions of dollars, according to the report of the Lancet Commission on pollution and health (2017). Last December, I attended the annual UN climate talks, known as COP 23, led by the warm Fiji Presidency in cold Bonn, Germany. Considered the highest decision-making body responsible to operationalize the Paris Agreement on climate change, the accord expects to move us towards a decarbonized economy by 2050. Working under a complex agenda and pressing schedules, these multilateral negotiations can be frustrating due to the slow pace of diplomatic compromises and the interference of politics into science.
However, the UN climate talks did deliver on many aspects and advanced important tasks that are progressively shaping the rules for a well-functioning treaty on climate change. In my view, one of the most important outcomes of this meeting was the greater recognition that climate change is intrinsically connected to human health and more needs to be done to merge these two themes.
Recently, India suspended classes at 6,000 schools for a week in Delhi due to air pollution. The capital’s air quality registered at 999 on the Air Quality Index in some areas represents a score 30 times the safe limit established by the World Health Organization (WHO), which is 10 times worse than the notorious poor-air quality of Beijing. Beyond the more evident air-quality, climate change threats global security and our health through the emergence of new infectious diseases. More research is still needed to define how climate change affects disease-vectors breeding. However, current predictions indicate that mosquitoes such as Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus are expected to increase, escalating the risks of new health global crises. Dengue, Zika and yellow fever are some of the expanding diseases calling attentions of researchers. The expansion of leishmaniasis into Europe and the increased intensity of cholera outbreaks are also examples of diseases being linked to climate change.
At COP 23, former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger powerfully reminded participants of the Health Day at COP 23 that climate change is one of the greatest examples of a communication failure. For him, a campaign similar to the one that attacked the tobacco industry years ago should be orchestrated to explain that fossil fuels also kill people!
It is true that much more should be done to cut greenhouse (GHG) emissions in order to protect our health. Currently, at least three examples illustrate that we are not putting our money where our lips are. The first one relates to the difficulties to cut perverse subsidies to fossil fuels. Undoubtedly, uncontrolled emissions of GHG are polluting innumerous regions and this problem is not limited to developing countries. Poor air quality in London in 2017 supports this argument. And yet, the G20 nations continue to act incoherently providing four times more public finance for fossil fuels than for renewables. Multilateral development banks are also still financing billions of dollars for oil, gas and coal projects, which consume a large chunk of the already limited public resources that should be used more strategically, if the Paris Agreement 2C minimum target of warming is taken seriously. The second example is the fast pace with which we degrade our ecosystems, being it through large deforestation, waste production, unplanned land-use change and disregard of the most vulnerable populations, which are the first to suffer with the vanishing of natural resources.
Finally, the abandon of our oceans, which are becoming deposits of all sorts of harmful materials, notably plastic and chemicals, is a dangerous fact. Perceived as nobody’s land, oceans are essential to our global climate system, as they generate oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and they deserve our attention. Besides sea-level rise, ocean acidification is putting our marine ecosystems and costal communities at big risks.
The key message is that climate change and environmental degradation is threatening our existence. Now it is a good time for Asian countries, at the forefront of fast economic growth and fast pace urbanization, to lead by example. If Asian countries really want to lift people out of poverty and ensure their population’s wellbeing, taxpayers can no longer be part of unsustainable policies. One key recommendation is thus to include the real costs of climate inaction into the calculus of public health policies. Doctors, for example, must be aware of the environmental crisis and get training on sustainable development issue. It’s only through healthy ecosystems that we can ensure healthy lives.