Health ‘forgotten’ in climate talks

Doctors and environmentalists believe the impact of climate change on public health has been largely ignored by policymakers as global leaders step up talks ahead of December’s Copenhagen summit.

Health NGOs in Brussels are pushing for greater attention to be paid to the increase in infectious diseases and chronic illnesses that accompany changes to the climate, with campaigners fearful that world’s poorest populations will be worst hit.

“Health has been forgotten in climate talks but it’s not too late to put it on the agenda,” said Anja Leetz, executive director of Health Care Without Harm Europe (HCWH). 

Dr Michael Gill of the Climate Health Council said that 20 years ago, climate issues were the preserve of environmentalists, but the debate has now shifted to a discussions about financing. 

“People think climate change is now all about economics, but health should be the bottom line,” he said. Gill claimed that any policy that is good for the environment is good for health too, and said politicians should link the two issues to help improve public appreciation of why urgent action is needed. 

He said health professionals will come together to highlight climate change just as doctors from the US and Russia had joined forces in the 1980s to protest against nuclear war. 

Dr Michael Wilks, president of the Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME), said health professionals can play a key role in convincing the public of the need for action. However, he warned that there is a growing sense that the Copenhagen talks are “losing momentum”. 

Green health groups are urging EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassilliou to put pressure on Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas and the EU’s delegation to the Copenhagen climate summit. 

At a meeting in Brussels yesterday (6 October), HCWH Europe and the Health and Environmental Alliance (HEAL) presented Vassilliou with a ‘Prescription for a Healthy Planet,’ which calls for better treatment for the ailing climate negotiations. 

Europe battling resurgent infectious diseases 

Experts say infectious diseases which had been virtually eradicated in some European countries will spread quickly thanks to climate disturbances. Malaria is making a comeback, but there are also concerns about rising chronic pulmonary illnesses. 

The strain this will put on healthcare systems is a concern for policymakers who fear a recrudescence of health problems experienced in France when a heatwave overwhelmed hospitals in 2003. 

The wider issue of malnutrition arising from decreased crop yields is also being floated as an argument for a decisive agreement in Copenhagen. 

Dr Wilks said if action is not taken, the average temperature in France in 2050 will be the same as the maximum temperature experienced during the catastrophic heat wave of 2003.