The world’s running a fever and it’s going to make us sick
Climate talks in Durban, South Africa, have ended. Developing and developed countries both agreed that a deal to slash emissions “with legal force” would begin in 2020. This has been hailed by Climate Change Minister Greg Combet as a ““significant milestone”. But today on The Punch a youth delegate at the conference, Melia Condon, explains that one thing keeps getting left out of discussions about climate change: it will have a serious impact on our health.
Increases in temperature, extreme weather events and sea level rises are not the impacts of climate change we should be most concerned about in the short term.
It is often overlooked that even just a small change to our environment can have a profound impact on human health. Meanwhile, the size of endemic areas and severity of vector, food and water-borne infectious diseases are on the rise. As are tropical storms, floods and droughts that many Australians are all too familiar with and the flow on effects to malnutrition and mental health in some cases.
The Australian Government recently released a report by its Pacific Climate Change Science Program on the role that climate change is playing on individual nations in the Asia-Pacific. But the report – funded as an adaptation initiative for its poorer neighbours – failed to mention human health whatsoever.
Unfortunately, this report is not the only example where the importance of the impacts of climate change on health has been ignored. The term ‘health’ is only mentioned twice within the entire core text of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Once as a definition, and once regarding adaptation measures.
Here in Durban, the host city of the latest round of negotiations, the necessity of addressing health within the negotiations could not have been clearer. On the Sunday night before the commencement of the conference, eight people were killed due to extreme flooding within the area.
What a message with which to begin international climate negotiations.
The World Health Organisation has called for health related issues to be included in the UN negotiations, saying: “The ultimate impact of climate change represents a toll on our most precious resource - human lives”.
But in Australia a disconnect continues to perpetuate between the research and the policy of the Government.
Another report released last week by the Government’s own Climate Commission highlighted the danger that climate change represents to the health of all Australians. Heavily backed by the health sector, the report clearly shows that a number of adverse health effects will possibly be felt within the next 20 years.
It concluded that: “Our health is dependent on the health of the environment that supports us… If Australia and the rest of the world fail to reduce emissions sufficiently, we run the risk of climate change impacts so severe that we will be unable to adapt”.
On the policy front however, little progress has been made.
It is time for human health to be fully recognised as a key aspect of climate change. Not only is it in the interests of adaptation assistance, but developed countries need to also firmly address societal health impacts.
As a first step, the Government should formally include health projects under its adaptation assistance regionally and heighten the funding it provides for these initiatives.
As the developed country most vulnerable to the affects of climate change, Australia should also be pushing for health to be recognised within the UN processes. As its own research has indicated, dengue fever could for example spread as far south as Sydney without action.
Health impacts could also provide the Government with much needed justification for action on climate change.
By emphasising the shorter term impacts on health rather than the longer term impacts to our climate, the Government’s case for broader action would be bolstered significantly.
At the end of the day, our climate debate is not only in poor health, so too is our world.
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