Global ‘boiling era’: Focus on health to tackle climate crisis

Africa Climate Summit

President William Ruto takes a group photo with delegates at KICC, Nairobi on September 4, 2023 during the Africa Climate Summit 2023.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

 The traction on health being central to the climate crisis is gaining momentum, and its drum rolls need to sound even louder. This, as about 1.1 million people in Africa died prematurely from air pollution-related diseases in 2019, representing one-sixth of the total global estimate of seven million annual deaths.

Furthermore, climate-linked emergencies have been on the rise with more than 100 health emergencies occurring in Africa every year, which accounts for 70 per cent of all natural disasters that occurred between 2017 and 2021, with devastating consequences.

At least 2,121 public health events were recorded in the region between 2001 and 2021, out of which, 56 per cent were climate-related. In our recent memory is cyclone Freddy in southern Africa that killed at least 676 people and displaced thousands in Malawi. These staggering statistics paint a devastating picture of how health systems can easily be crippled by climate change, besides the loss and destruction of human lives and livelihoods.

This year, for the first time, the world’s biggest climate summit held annually by the United Nations will have a day dedicated to discussing the health impacts of climate change. The 28th Conference of Parties’ (COP28) president, Sultan Al-Jaber, made the announcement earlier in the year saying its inclusion will widen the scope on climate adaptation and foster climate resilience, as well as beef up other mitigation measures. This has been long overdue, but having it gain impetus at COP28, somewhat, makes up for the lost time.

Average temperatures

The clarity of science as guided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose latest report was released this year, shows that human-induced climate risks exacerbate both planetary and people’s health. The report indicates how the shifting average temperatures aggravate the occurrence of existing health conditions, such as malaria and other vector-borne diseases. As popularly said, “health is wealth” ; a country’s economy will be affected when people hit by the climate crisis cannot afford the healthcare they need to improve their quality of life. 

Such realities show the need to make health a key agenda at climate summits. The Africa Climate Summit presents a pivotal moment to address the undeniable interplay between climate and health - a matter of life and death for our people. The tragic irony isn’t lost on us.

African leaders have, for a long time, prioritized inanimate things, energy, agriculture, and how minuscule our continent’s contribution is to global greenhouse gas emissions, yet it’s our communities that bear the harshest brunt of climate change’s devastating impacts. Sadly, the organisers seem to have overlooked the urgency of this health crisis, as it remains conspicuously absent from the agenda. This isn’t merely an oversight; it’s a haunting omission that risks squandering a golden opportunity to amplify Africa’s voice on a global stage.

Climate change dialogue

We can’t afford to miss this chance. With the health of African communities at a stake, we have to seize the moment to petition for inclusion of health into climate change dialogue – ensuring Africa’s vulnerabilities and needs are not just heard but are acted upon in global forums.

Nonetheless, a promising shift is emerging, as key players like Africa’s health ministers and civil society organisations, including Amref Health Africa, are leading the charge in framing health as central to the climate agenda. These influential and immutable voices are not only elevating the discourse but also laying the groundwork for policy initiatives that prioritise health in climate action. Their efforts represent a strategic move to steer the focus of climate dialogues towards a more holistic and urgently needed approach.

We urge African health ministers to take lead and actively engage at the COP28. Such participation is indispensable for devising robust, health-inclusive policies in climate mitigation and adaptation. To win the debate on the climate crisis, health must feature prominently, especially in the ‘global boiling era’, as the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, puts it. We must begin to view the climate crisis not just as an abstract global challenge, but as a pressing health issue that needs to be urgently addressed.

Dr Gitahi is the Group CEO of Amref Health Africa and Mr Muchangi is the Director for Population Health and Environment at Amref Health Africa