“Reaching a tipping point”: Climate a key issue at World Health Assembly

Josh Karliner discusses how climate change — widely considered to be the greatest health threat of the century — broke through in a big way this year at the World Health Assembly in Geneva.

WHO Director-General Chan at WHA. Photo Credit: Eric Bridiers.

Almost six months after she helped broker a unanimous agreement among 195 governments in Paris, Christiana Figueres, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, came to the World Health Assembly (WHA) to urge ministers of health to prioritize climate change. Figueres eloquently argued that “working on climate change is [our] best prevention strategy” and that ministers need to use “the health microphone…[to] translate what climate change actually means for real people.”

Listening to Figueres’ speak, it struck me how far we’ve come. Just a few years ago, Health Care Without Harm was one of a small number of voices in the wilderness advocating on climate and health. As one WHO colleague put it, “you could fit the number of people working on the issue into a phone booth.”

Today, dozens of governments large and small, along with several major institutions ranging from the World Bank, to the WHO, UNDP, to a growing number of national health professional alliances are all setting their sights on climate and health. Health has become increasingly central to our understanding of climate change. And the health sector is ever more prominent in marshaling the forces to adapt to and reverse its deadly trends.

What has changed?

Why suddenly are so many big fish in what once was a small climate and health pond? What has changed?

For one thing, the health sector has been organizing from below. Figueres recognized the coming together of the health sector around Paris, including the millions of health professionals who called for action and the 8,000 hospitals and heath centers represented in HCWH’s 2020 Health Care Climate Challenge. She spoke to the ministers on the need for the health community to build on this momentum and adopt an ambitious climate agenda, by mobilizing “awareness of the link between the heath of the planet and the health of those human beings who live on the planet, because they are one and the same.”

Christiana Figueres speaks at the World Health Assembly.

Figueres ended her Plenary Address with a stark warning: “if over the next five years we do not fundamentally change” and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors, the world is “in danger of reaching a tipping point in the atmosphere that will have a direct negative and profound impact on health around the planet for many, many decades — an impact that many scientists believe could not be recovered…We have five years to make an extraordinary difference.”

This very real sense of urgency is perhaps what is most responsible for catalyzing the growing climate and health movement.

From Left: Dr. Maria Neira, Dr. Margaret Chan, and Josh Karliner

After her talk, I met Figueres and WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan, as we sat together on a panel whose organization and composition spoke orders of magnitude to the fact that the climate and health issue is indeed coming of age. The panel was organized by the governments of the United States — the largest per capita and historical emitter of greenhouse gasses, Brazil — a fast growing developing country, and the Philippines Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum which represents 43 nations most vulnerable to climate’s impacts. The fact that this diverse grouping of governments came together to organize such an event, demonstrates that the climate and health issue is now garnering serious attention from all comers.

Low carbon health care

Before the panel began, and as the room filled to a standing room only crowd of more than 250 government officials, WHO staff and health advocates, I introduced Figueres to our Global Green and Healthy Hospitals Network, explaining the 2020 Health Care Climate Challenge. We discussed the importance of hospitals and health systems transitioning their own operations to help forge a low carbon future, while exerting leadership to protect public health from climate change.

Josh Karliner and Christiana Figueres.

Then, speaking on the panel, I presented the growing worldwide movement for green, low carbon, resilient health care. I shared how shifting to climate smart systems helps hospitals and health systems in developed and middle income countries reduce their emissions and become more climate resilient. And how in low-income countries, low carbon strategies can supply energy where there often is none, powering and providing access to health care — fostering climate resilience and sustainable development.

Transitioning health care to a low carbon development path is a win-win-win proposition. It aligns health care with the Paris treaty and the Sustainable Development Goals; it helps hospitals prepare for the impacts of climate change; and it strengthens health systems by increasing access to care and saving money.

Big bucks

Next up on the panel was Dr. Patrick Lumumba Osewe from the World Bank. Dr. Osewe and I had just come from Helsinki where the World Bank, together with the Nordic Development Fund and WHO, had organized a small workshop to discuss how to shift billions of dollars in health development finance to become more climate smart.

In Geneva, Dr. Osewe discussed the outcomes of the Helsinki meeting in his presentation — including the fact that the World Bank is now committed to focus 20% of the $12 billion they spend every year for health, on climate smart investment in the sector. Several other multilateral and bilateral lending and aid institutions, along with a group of foundations are moving in the same direction.

This is more than a small bit of good news.

An air pollution road map

Another big win at the intersection of health and climate at WHA came later in the week when Ministers approved the WHO’s new Air Pollution Road Map.

Following on last year’s WHA resolution, WHO staff put together a comprehensive approach to tackle air pollution that all governments are now committed to. Fossil fuel combustion, which is the prime driver of climate change is also the greatest contributor to air pollution. So by tackling air pollution we can not only get a killer that is taking 7 million lives a year, but we can also simultaneously tackle climate change.

Or, conversely, as Christiana Figures argued, by reducing emissions we will not only protect public health from the most serious impacts of climate change in the future, we will simultaneously improve health conditions in the here and now.

A tipping point

What all this activity in Helsinki and Geneva means is that we are indeed at a tipping point. The moment is both terrifying and exciting. As Figueres warns us, we have maybe five years to turn the ship around with regard to climate change. If not, climate’s health impacts will surely accelerate and perhaps spin out of control.

We are also at a tipping point because the Paris treaty provides a path forward for us to begin to solve the problem. And the health sector can help make a big difference. Indeed, health has a pivotal role to play in implementing and improving upon Paris.

The World Health Assembly taking up climate in a more serious way is a step in the right direction. The Air Pollution Road Map will also help foster a transition to clean, renewable energy around the world protecting public health from both local and global pollution. International Financial Institutions such as the World Bank dedicating significant resources to fund climate and health is a very positive opening. But much more needs to be done.

Health Care Without Harm is doing our part by catalyzing action at the local, national and global levels. We continue to organize the sector through the 2020 Health Care Climate Challenge, which now has 80 participants, representing more than 9000 hospitals and health centers in 23 countries. We work with governments and international institutions to help create policy frameworks for low carbon health care. And we also work with health professional organizations globally and directly in multiple countries to address the health impacts of air pollution, particularly as it relates to energy generation — advocating for a transition away from fossil fuels, particularly coal, and toward clean, renewable healthy energy.

And now, after so many years of there being just a handful of health groups working on climate, we are seeing a movement emerge and grow. Just as the health sector marshaled forces to take on tobacco, or HIV-AIDS, we now need to build an even larger effort to take on the existential threat posed by climate change. And we need to do it fast.


Josh Karliner is the Director of Global Projects / International Team Coordinator for Health Care Without Harm.
Learn more about Health Care Without Harm’s climate and health work around the world.