Follow-up to the Paris Agreement: The role of public health in preventing and responding to climate change, By C. Chiotan & L. Farrer

15 December 2015

The agreement reached in Paris to limit global temperature increase to well below two degrees celsius above the pre-industrial levels is hugely welcome[1]. It marks an historic step towards taking real action to prevent climate change and is a striking example of solidarity and co-operation to tackle a global challenge. Although the commitments made by individual countries currently lack the ambition required, there is now an agreed process and starting point to build upon.

No less important are commitments to mitigate the effects of climate change and therefore to protect people’s health and well-being, particularly in more disadvantaged parts of the world. The European Environment Agency predicts that malnutrition, cardio-respiratory diseases, diarrhoeal diseases and infectious diseases will increase over coming years as a result of climate change. The most prevalent health effects in Europe will be related to heat waves, other weather-related ailments and vector-borne diseases[2].

EuroHealthNet’s core interest is to promote more equal health within and between European countries. Just as health inequalities are more pronounced in some geographic regions than others[3] and ill health predominantly afflicts certain groups (i.e. those with a lower level of education, lower occupational group, and lower income and wealth[4]), climate change will disproportionately affect certain places and populations too. By all accounts, it is those countries that are least advantaged and whose populations are most at risk that are most threatened by climate change.

EuroHealthNet hopes that efforts to limit global temperature increase take into account the differential vulnerabilities of populations to climate change. This requires greater efforts to be expended on those who are particularly threatened. Not doing so risks worsening average population health, massively aggravating existing inequalities and forcing populations to migrate to flee adversity. Recent events in Europe show just how fraught with danger such an approach is, and just how much pressure this can put on European co-operation and public services.

Experience of working on public health and health inequalities shows that many issues can only be properly addressed by working across sectors. This is challenging but necessary and takes dedicated time and resourcing[5]. In fact, the health sector can contribute to tackling climate change not just in terms of in adapting to it (i.e. by improving public awareness of climate-related health risks and improving access to healthcare in afflicted areas) but in terms of preventing it as well (e.g. by promoting health-friendly lifestyles that reduce our carbon footprint)[6]. Opportunities should therefore be found to enable the health sector to contribute to preventing, adapting and mitigating climate change. Doing so would be beneficial for efforts to reduce climate change, for improving population health, and for reducing health inequalities.

 

 

[1] See “The Paris Agreement”, available here

[2] See “The European Environment, State and Outlook 2015”, available here

[3] See “Review of social determinants and the health divide in the WHO European Region: final report”, available here

[4] See DRIVERS project here.

[5] See for instance: 1) Crossing Bridges Final Report, available here  2) Kimmo Leppo (2013). Health in All Policies, Seizing opportunties, implementing policies. Ministry of Social Affairs and Health Finland. Available here.

[6] See SPREAD project here.