COP28: Warming planet is making people sicker, experts warn

COP28 United Nations climate summit in Dubai

An environmental activist wearing a costume displays a placard in a hallway during the COP28 United Nations climate summit in Dubai on Sunday, December 3. 

Photo credit: Courtesy | AFP

What you need to know:

  • One in 12 hospitals at risk of shutdown from extreme weather events.
  • Health stands as the most compelling reason for taking climate action as the threats are immediate and present, warns WHO.

In Dubai, UAE

The link between climate change and health took centre stage at the UN talks on climate change in Dubai yesterday, with Kenya becoming one of the more than 100 countries that endorsed the COP28 United Arab Emirates Declaration on Climate and Health, a powerful call to action that captures both the threats and opportunities of the climate crisis.

For the first time in the history of the climate talks, delegates set aside an entire day to discuss the twin problems of a warming planet and the health challenges it brings, including heightened prevalence of malaria and dengue fever, especially in Africa and other regions of the global south.

Kenya is right at the centre of this crisis, with new diseases, pathogens and vectors reported in various parts of the country. For instance, highland malaria has been reported in the central highlands, dengue fever continues to ravage parts of the coastal region, while a new drug-resistant mosquito has been reported in the northern region.

Also, the new threat of zoonoses, which are disease of animal origin such as the Covid-19 pandemic and Ebola, is growing as humans encroach on animal habitats for survival. For many scientists, therefore, it is no longer a matter of if, but when, the world will face another pandemic as the climate crisis grows.

Speaking at the Dubai summit yesterday, World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus underscored the urgent need for climate and health discussions, terming them as long “overdue”.

“Health stands as the most compelling reason for taking climate action,” he said.

“The threats to health resulting from climate change are immediate and present. However, for too long, health has been a footnote to climate discussion.”

The first-of-its-kind event brought together more than 100 health ministers from around the world—a rare delegation at previous conferences.

United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry urged the world to stop investing in fossil fuels and embrace renewable energy sources, a move that the International Energy Agency says in the Renewables 2022 Report could see wind and solar power breaking records and overtaking coal as the source of electricity by 2025.

“We should stop killing ourselves using coal,” said Mr Kerry, who is also a former US Secretary of State.

“Coal doubles the number of deaths. There shouldn’t be any more coal fire power plant permitted anywhere in the COPs. I find myself being more militant because I do not understand how adults who are in a position of responsibility can avoid responsibility. The climate crisis and the health crisis are the same.”

Agreeing with him, American billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates urged nations to “preserve basic health commitments such as the funding of vaccines” even as they fund climate and health.

The United Arab Emirates, host of this year’s climate talks, along with many charities at the UN committed $777 million in funding to combat neglected tropical diseases that are anticipated to exacerbate with rising temperatures. Other notable pledges included $100 million from the UAE and an additional $ 100 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

While conversations on financing have centred on mitigation and adaptation, with developing nations asking for funding to push adaptation needs, little is ever set aside to fund the effects of a warming planet on the health of its inhabitants. Ms Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Alliance on Climate and Health, noted that “having a health day at COP28 is extraordinary because it gives health an official platform”, and that “giving it such attention where we can say that climate crisis is a health crisis, gives us a chance to ensure that the message is carried into the negotiations”.

While calling out for fossil phase-out, Ms Miller urged countries to scale up on health-related innovations and solutions.

“What makes me hopeful is that there are many people around the world to find solutions. We have solutions to renewable power such as solar but are not employed in scale. Also, health agencies need data for planning and reference,” she said.

Mr Githinji Gitahi, the Amref Health Africa CEO and a COP28 health envoy, described climate change as a human crisis and called for reforms of health policies and protection of communities in Kenya and beyond.

“We already have a fragile health system that we are trying build and protect. The climate crisis is going to dismantle it and make our work even more difficult,” he said, adding that the biggest challenge is policy paralysis because “we fail to recognise that health is truly the human face of climate change”.

A new report published before the COP28 health day revealed that one in 12 hospitals worldwide are at risk of total or partial shutdown from extreme weather events if there is no rapid phase-out of fossil fuels.

Published by XDI, an organisation that offers climate risk analysis, the report warned that some Kenyan hospitals are among the 16,245 health facilities globally facing an uncertain future. Hospitals located on coastlines and near rivers are most at risk.

Health Principal Secretary Mary Muthoni was expected to launch Kenya’s Climate and Health Strategy at the summit yesterday, but she told Nation that only a draft of the strategy was available by press-time.