The World Health Organization, in a new special report, is calling for governments and policymakers to “act with urgency” on the climate and health crises. The report describes climate change as the “single biggest health threat facing humanity,” and outlines 10 recommended climate and health actions along with the research in support of why each action is beneficial.
Groups representing 45 million nurses, doctors and health professionals around the world have now signed an open letter to heads of state and national delegations urging action on the climate crisis, ahead of a pivotal UN climate change summit in early November.
“As health professionals and health workers, we recognize our ethical obligation to speak out about this rapidly growing crisis that could be far more catastrophic and enduring than the Covid-19 pandemic,” the letter reads. “Those people and nations who have benefited most from the activities that caused the climate crisis, especially fossil fuel extraction and use, have a great responsibility to do everything possible to help those who are now most at risk.”
Both the special report and open letter highlight key climate issues that are already affecting public health including air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, which causes climate change; intensifying heat waves, floods and storms taking thousands of lives; rising sea levels destroying homes and livelihoods; and extreme weather exacerbating food insecurity and hunger.
“Protecting health requires action well beyond the health sector, in energy, transport, nature, food systems, finance and more,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote in the report’s foreword. “The ten recommendations outlined in this report — and the action points, resources and case studies that support them — provide concrete examples of interventions that, with support, can be scaled up rapidly to safeguard our health and our climate.”
Much like the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis has caused devastating ripple effects across society and the economy, threatening people’s lives, decreasing worker productivity, and straining infrastructure and health services. Moreover, the consequences of both crises have exposed the inequalities that have led certain communities to be more vulnerable than others.
“Even as they have been battling to end the Covid-19 pandemic, health leaders everywhere have been sounding the alarm on climate change,” Maria Neira, director of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health at the WHO, said in a press release. “It is time we listened.”
The landmark UN state-of-the-science report released in August concludes that the world has rapidly warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and is now barreling toward 1.5 degrees — a critical threshold that world leaders agreed warming should remain below to avoid worsening impacts.
The recommendations in the new WHO special report include prioritizing climate interventions with the largest gains, building climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable health systems, and promoting sustainable food production as well as sustainable and equitable urban design and transportation systems.
“The recommendations are the result of extensive consultations with health professionals, organizations and stakeholders worldwide, and represent a broad consensus statement urging governments to act to tackle the climate crisis, restore biodiversity, and protect health,” Tedros wrote.
The report was written “in memory of Ella Kissi-Debrah — and all other children who have suffered and died from air pollution and climate change.”
Kissi-Debrah, who died at age 9 after an asthma attack, is thought to be the first person in the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death in a landmark coroner’s ruling. Kissi-Debrah lived in southeast London, near one of the UK capital’s busiest roads, the South Circular.
As world leaders prepare for this year’s UN climate talks, health care leaders are urging heads of states to expand their international climate commitments to tackle the current public health crises brought by a warming world — and to prevent future ones.
“The health arguments for rapid climate action have never been clearer,” Tedros wrote. “I hope this report can guide policymakers and practitioners from across sectors and across the world to implement the transformative changes needed.”