WHO weighs in on climate debate

Poor air quality in China will cost the country dearly in the near future. [Herry Lawford/Flickr]

Extreme weather conditions, famine and air pollution are all factors in the rising climate change death toll. The drastic public health consequences of climate change could provide the UN with the impetus it needs to agree on an ambitious new set of climate goals in 2015. However, critics remain unconvinced. EURACTIV France reports

The tragedy of the recent typhoon that hit the Philippines on 7 December, killing 23 people, has added to the urgency of the climate negotiations currently under way in Lima, bringing the moral and public health aspects of climate change to the forefront.

The Episcopal Conference in Peru, held last weekend, produced a joint statement, saying “climate change creates poverty and increases injustice and we call for this situation to be reversed with all the urgency the circumstances demand”.

Global warming has a direct impact on increasingly extreme weather patterns, as well as the access of the world’s poorest to food. Desertification and crop failures tend to reduce resources in areas where food is already in scarce supply.

Growing risk to human health

The NGO Action Contre la Faim highlighted the increasing risk of famine, telling the Lima Climate Conference that a child dies every 30 seconds from malnutrition. In a report published on 6 December, the NGO highlighted the need to integrate “the right to health and adequate nutrition” into the climate change debate.

They call for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the sectors of transport, energy and agriculture, in order to mitigate the negative effects of climate change on public health, and for health indicators to be integrated into development policy as standard.

The increasingly well-documented links between climate change and health problems could influence the negotiation process in Lima, and push civil society to put pressure on their governments ahead of the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris in 2015.

The key to increased awareness?

Sir Nicholas Stern, a professor at LSE, said during a recent conference that health “could be one of the keys to increasing awareness of climate issues”. The specialist believes that the question is gaining political momentum in China, where respiratory diseases caused by poor air quality could cost the country up to 10% of its GDP by 2030.

Two centuries of intensively burning hydrocarbons has had a major impact on air quality, and of the estimated 7 million deaths worldwide linked to poor air quality in 2012, almost half occurred in Asia.

Climate change sceptics on the defensive

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that the total cost of the harm caused to public heath by climate change will rise to between 2 and 4 billion dollars per year by 2030. The organisation also believes that malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and stress caused by high temperatures could be responsible for a further 250,000 deaths worldwide between 2030 and 2050.

British climate change critics the Global Warming Foundation, a think tank often critical of climate change research, was quick to attack the WHO report, publishing an article entitled Unhealthy Exaggeration, in which they questioned the WHO’s estimates for the economic and human cost of climate change.

Their main criticism is that the WHO’s research did not take into account the ability of populations to adapt to climate change, particularly to rising sea-levels.

The article’s author, Indur M. Goklany, wrote that the WHO report “ignores the fact that people and societies are not potted plants; that they will actually take steps to reduce, if not nullify, real or perceived threats to their life, limb and well-being”. He went on to argue that technological advances are helping to confront the increase of threats like malaria, and that the WHO seriously overestimated the increased risk of mortality.

>> Read: EU raises the pressure on COP 20 conference


The twentieth Conference of the Parties (COP20) of signatories to the United Nation's Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held in Lima from 1 to 12 October 2014, is the second of three conferences that, it is hoped, will culminate with the adoption of a new international agreement on climate change action in Paris in December 2015.

At the end of current conference, France will become the "incoming President-Designate" of the COP. As such, it will work alongside the current Peruvian Presidency and will take part in daily meetings in the COP offices.

The Peruvian presidency will have the power to summon French ministers for meeting and negotiations.

Further Reading

World Health Organisation

Climate Change Foundation

Action contre la faim

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