COP28: Health Impacts of Climate Change Will Be Discussed for the First Time at a Summit

kids in a pool on the street
Um Só Planeta
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
COP28: Health Impacts of Climate Change Will Be Discussed for the First Time at a Summit

Placing health at the center of climate discussions was one of the promises of the COP28 presidency. In his speeches and agenda, Sultan Al Jaber stressed that he intends to mobilize investments for equitable and climate-resilient healthcare systems during negotiations at the conference. For the first time in its history, the UN climate summit is hosting a Health Day and a ministerial meeting on climate change and health.

On the themed day, which opens the COP28 thematic agenda on December 3, the presidency will announce significant new programs and financing for health and climate in response to countries' priorities and needs. In an official statement at the end of the day, Al Jaber must present concrete commitments and progress from governments, international organizations, development banks, philanthropic entities and the private sector.

“The link between health and climate change is clear, but it has not been a specific focus of the COP process — until now,” he said during the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in September.

There are several aspects that link health and the climate crisis. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is the cause of 7 million deaths a year, and vector-borne diseases such as malaria are expanding their reach due to rising temperatures and changing weather patterns, which disproportionately affects vulnerable communities.

“COP28 is determined to clarify these issues and bring together partners who can make a positive difference. We are determined to reverse these trends by bringing the world together around an inclusive action agenda centered on a just transition, fairer climate finance and improving lives and livelihoods,” said Al Jaber in New York.

The WHO estimates that the financial cost of health crises attributed to climate change will reach between US$2 and 4 billion annually by 2030, exacerbating poverty, especially in disadvantaged regions. The World Bank predicts that nearly 40% of climate-related poverty will result from the direct health impacts of climate change, affecting productivity, income and expenditure.

Investing in health, therefore, is a fundamental aspect of climate resilience, especially with prevention in mind. Also according to the World Bank, every dollar invested in building climate resilience produces an average benefit of four dollars.

Analysts point out, however, that, to be complete, the COP28 Declaration on Climate and Health needs to include the issue of phasing out the use of fossil fuels. Scientists say it is urgent to phase out these sources in the energy, transport and city sectors to prevent health impacts from snowballing. “The proposed commitments to finance adaptation in the health sector are certainly welcome, but if fossil fuels are not addressed then the declaration will be incomplete,” said Jeni Miller, head of the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA ), during a session at the World Health Summit, held in October in Berlin, Germany, reports the NGO Health Policy Watch.

“We need more investment in our health systems to adapt to the impacts we are feeling around the world. We are experiencing major health impacts from 1.1°C [of warming] in terms of extreme weather, heat and disease, while we are on track to reach 2.8°C. We simply do not have the capacity to adapt to the level of warming that is currently predicted to reach based on the policies that are being implemented,” she said. “Mitigation is extremely important and fossil fuels are the main driver of climate change. We have to phase out fossil fuels.”

In an open letter, health bodies from around the world called on international governments to eliminate fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy. The 39 signatories stated that they are already seeing widespread impacts on human health caused by climate-related changes, adding that “if we are to have any chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C and stopping the escalation of the climate health emergency, we must end with the proliferation of fossil fuels.”

Health impacts

The effects of climate change on health are diverse, and according to the WHO, between 2030 and 2050, it is estimated that climate change will cause 250,000 additional deaths per year, just due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. In vulnerable regions, such as low-income countries and small island developing states, the mortality rate caused by extreme weather events in the last decade was 15 times higher than in less vulnerable regions.

The planet's average warming of 1.1 ºC is already impacting the workforce and health infrastructure, reducing the ability to provide universal health coverage, says the WHO. All aspects of health are affected by climate change — including clean air, water, soil, food systems and livelihoods — with increasing deaths and illnesses resulting from extreme weather events, disruption of food systems, increases in zoonoses and transmission of pathogens by food, water and vectors, as well as mental health problems such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress and long-term disruption due to factors such as displacement and social division.

Further delays in combating climate change will increase health risks, undermine decades of improvements in global health and violate countries' collective commitments to guarantee the human right to health for all, experts say. In 2020, the number of people experiencing food insecurity increased by 98 million individuals compared to the average from 1981 to 2010.

Deaths and health complications are also attributed to the increase in generalized heat and the phenomenon of heat waves. According to research from the University of Bern, Switzerland, 37% of deaths caused by heat in the last 30 years are related to climate change induced by human activities. Heat-related deaths among people over 65 have increased by 70% in two decades. According to a global study by the scientific journal The Lancet, heat-related deaths of children and elderly people increased by 68% in the period between 2017 and 2021, compared to 2000-2004.

Exposure to extreme heat worsens cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and causes heatstroke, pregnancy complications, worsening sleep patterns and mental health, and increased injury-related mortality. According to another global study from the same magazine, climate change is expected to cause a 4.7-fold increase in heat-related deaths by 2050, if governments do nothing to stop global warming. There were an average of 86 days of high temperatures that threatened health between 2018 and 2022, and human-caused climate change increased the likelihood of more than 60% of those days occurring, the analysis showed.

To protect yourself, you need to stay hydrated. A lack of water in the body can cause dizziness, fainting, tiredness, palpitations, malaise and, in extreme cases, death. Other forms of protection include using sunscreen, light clothing, a cap or hat and seeking shade when outdoors. "If people don't find a way to cool off within a few hours, it can lead to heat exhaustion, heat stroke and strain on the cardiovascular system, which can lead to heart attacks in vulnerable people," says W. Larry Kenney, professor of physiology and kinesiology at Penn State, and one of the authors of a study that assessed which parts of the Earth could become uninhabitable if temperatures rise 1 ºC or more.

Heat waves have also affected social and economic activities in some countries. In early August this year, Iran declared a two-day holiday, closing offices, banks and the stock exchange, in response to the extreme heat. Since 2016, countries in the Middle East have repeatedly recorded temperatures of 50ºC or more. India, Mexico and the Philippines suspended or changed class times so that children could better deal with the heat. According to The Lancet report, the loss of work capacity related to heat exposure resulted in average potential income losses equivalent to US$863 billion in 2022, with agricultural workers being the most affected.

It is necessary to combat climate change based on holistic thinking and integrated actions, because messing with the physical-chemical structures that regulate the planet's temperatures invariably means affecting the lives that exist on this planet, in all its contexts.

This story was produced as part of the 2023 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security. It was first published in Portuguese by Um Só Planeta on December 3, 2023.

Banner image: Rio de Janeiro experienced record heat in 2023 / Credit: Tânia Rêgo for Agência Brasil.

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