WHO urges action on climate change to protect health

First ever global climate and health conference highlights twin benefits of action on air pollution

Beijing smog - air pollution was behind one in eight deaths worldwide in 2012 (Pic: Mckay savage)

Beijing smog – air pollution was behind one in eight deaths worldwide in 2012
(Pic: Mckay savage)

By Megan Darby

Leading health experts are urging stronger action on climate change, as the first ever global conference to link the two fields kicks off in Geneva.

Bringing together meteorologists, diplomats and medics – not to mention the Prince of Wales – the gathering will highlight health threats from climate change, and joint solutions.

The World Health Organization (WHO), hosting the three-day conference, said green energy and transport policies could save millions of lives each year, by cutting air pollution.

It also called for initiatives to help communities prepare for heat, extreme weather, infectious diseases and food insecurity caused by climate change.

“The evidence is overwhelming: climate change endangers human health,” said Dr Margaret Chan, WHO director general.

“Solutions exist and we need to act decisively to change this trajectory.”


The rallying cry builds momentum for action ahead of a climate summit to be hosted by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon next month.

At that summit, world leaders will be invited to make commitments to climate action. The idea is to engage heads of state with the issue before a global treaty is signed in Paris, December 2015.

Christiana Figueres, the UN’s climate chief, encouraged delegates to push for a strong agreement.

This will “chart a course towards a world with clean air and water, abundant natural resources and happy, health populations,” she said.

“Seen in this light, the climate agreement is actually a public health agreement.”

Figueres even suggested Chan treat climate change as a public health emergency.

The conference heard from Michel Jarraud, head of the World Meteorological Organization, and Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank.

The UK’s Prince Charles also lent his support in a video address.

Prince Charles: ‘Climate change is the greatest threat to public health of the 21st century’ #healthandclimate pic.twitter.com/c0RAd1Ghz1

— Marta (@MartaSeoaneA) August 27, 2014

Climate change is already responsible for tens of thousands of extra deaths each year, according to WHO data.

As temperatures rise, mosquitoes carrying malaria and other diseases are spreading into new areas.

Shifting weather patterns are hitting crop yields in some regions, triggering malnutrition.

And extreme events such as heat waves and floods cause health problems both directly and indirectly, by degrading water supplies.

Children and the poor are bearing the greatest burden of climate-related diseases, warned Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO assistant director general of family, women’s and children’s health.

“Without effective action to mitigate and adapt to the adverse effects of climate change on health, society will face one of its most serious health challenges,” said Bustreo.

Healthcare concerns can be a driver for climate action, in particular when it comes to air pollution.

Emissions from burning fossil fuels for transport and energy not only cause climate change, but are a major cause of respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

US president Barack Obama highlighted the health benefits of his drive to curb coal emissions.

Similarly, smog problems in Chinese cities have prompted the authorities to limit the rise of coal power.

In 2012, the WHO estimates air pollution killed 7 million people, or one in eight deaths worldwide.

Dr Maria Neira, WHO director of public health, said: “There is now solid evidence that mitigating climate change can greatly reduce this toll.”

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