COP 16 Day 4 – the role of health in the negotiations

While Charlotte worked with the Article 6 working group, we met with Kristie Ebi (PhD, MPH), the Executive Director of the IPCC’s Working Group on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Also present was our friend Prof Hugh Montgomery (co-author of the Lancet/UCL commission on Climate Change and Health).

In a wide-ranging discussion, we recognised the opportunity for health to be a common aspiration and moral imperative that brings countries and diverse interests (whether economic, agricultural, etc.) together to the negotiating table. While there are problems such as controversy over the discount rates used in economic modelling of health impacts of climate change and mitigation, these are relatively minor hurdles, especially since research into the health economics of climate change is new. Indeed, there is generally few publications that link climate science (for example, ocean acidification) to health impacts. Such links could have a great impact, allowing negotiators to see the human consequences of environmental changes.

Awareness of the Health and Climate Change link
Currently, we have a situation where negotiators have a vague awareness of health as an important issue, but low specific awareness of the health impacts of climate change. TWith meetings in different COP16 buildings in Cancun, we used the bus trip between venues to develop the format and content of the Climate Change and Health awareness survey, which we will be taking to the negotiating teams at COP16. We hope this survey will give us a more concrete picture of health’s current and potential importance in the UN Climate Change negotiations.

Later in the evening, we met again with the World Health Organisation and the ‘Friends of Public Health’. Many NGOs and delegations have expressed interest in the data we will generate, and we intend to share our conclusions publicly so that it may help the negotiating process reach informed outcomes.

Key steps to take for health
The key problem is that the health sector tends only to talk to itself, while everyone assumes that the World Health Organisation will take care of any health issues. Kristie spoke of the need for health experts to be included in government delegations and negotiating teams involved in climate change. With busy Ministries of Health, this may be difficult. We must be willing to fund and invest resources to allow the Ministry of Health to work with Ministries caring for the Environment or Climate Change. In many countries these Ministries have never spoken to one another! Alternatively, health expertise can come from academics or university students, who can advise on the health aspects of the national communications which form the basis of negotiating positions.

Furthermore, the health message must be a lens through which various impacts are seen, not ‘just another impact’. Environmental, economic and agricultural changes all have health impacts (for example, through food access and nutrition), and health is a common overarching goal for all people, providing a moral and social motivation to address climate change. Indeed, experience shows that health can motivate groups like the Ministry of Defence (the USA did war games based on climate change impacts 2 years ago) as well as faith-based groups, who often see looking after one another and the planet within their moral frameworks.

What about the UNFCCC negotiation process itself? Currently the Global Environmental Facility (the funding body in the UNFCCC) has been reluctant to fund health projects, partly because GEF funds only additional risks due to climate change to the neglect of general development (for example, existing TB or HIV/AIDS burden). Furthermore, although the general impacts are known, it can be difficult to quantify the additional risk that climate change poses to these diseases. Nevertheless, WHO have taken the positive step of requesting to be an implementation agency of GEF in order to address health issues.

Some general comments
• With some delegations only able to afford to send delegations of one person, they are severely disadvantaged in the UNFCCC process, which has many negotiating streams running all at once. NGOs wanting to help developing nations (the “global south”) should work on assisting their delegations (whether this be through offering to take minutes etc., or through fundraising) rather than sending large NGO delegations to create noise outside the negotiating room.
• Climate science will not become ‘certain’ through endless research. It is the very nature of the climate for it to have inherent limitations to accuracy. But this is not to say that we cannot work in terms of probability, for example a ‘tipping point’ for runaway climate change within the ‘next few years’. So a precautionary risk-management approach should be taken.
• We tend to view climate change as a global, catastrophic event that will occur unless we do something by a particular date (e.g. 2015). This creates the view that progress can only be made at conferences such as this one, and when progress is slow it is seen as a disastrous outcome. A rather disempowering state of affairs. Despite its obvious importance, as Kris said, “COP is a circus…. the opportunity to intervene here is limited”. We must recognise that climate change is a process, and so is negotiating. The most effective place to effect change is within our own countries – both by influencing our delegations before they go to COP (i.e. when they actually decide their negotiating positions) and also by direct action. Just as the effects of climate change can be seen in our own backyards (if we look for them!), we can turn off our laptops at night, eat a little less meat (a ‘weekend vegetarian’), catch a bus or cycle a bit more often, etc.

A busy day for IFMSA!

Arthur Cheung

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