According to a WHO expert, politicians who postpone taking action on climate change will have to face the resulting outcomes.
The leading environmental expert at the World Health Organization has cautioned that politicians who prolong taking action on climate change must be ready to face the consequences for humanity.
“Are you prepared to handle the consequences of delaying action?” asked Maria Neira, the World Health Organization’s lead on environmental health. “You must carry the burden of knowing that you are not actively saving lives – I hesitate to say you are causing harm, but you are not safeguarding the well-being of others.”
On Thursday, the World Meteorological Organization and dozens of research partners including the WHO issued a stark warning that climate change threatens to roll back decades of progress in human health.
Last month, Neira talked to the Guardian at the world health summit in Berlin. She stated that at the upcoming Cop28 climate conference, doctors will explain to policymakers the harm caused by burning fossil fuels. It will be the first time in history that a day will be dedicated to health at the conference.
Neira stated that there will be no excuse for ignorance, as everyone will be informed about the effects on health. She emphasized that attendees of Cop this year will not be able to claim they were unaware of the impact on their well-being. It is their responsibility to be aware that this issue extends beyond just climate change and its effects on nature, but also has direct consequences for their own respiratory health.
Fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas emit harmful particles that cause millions of deaths annually. Additionally, these emissions contribute to global warming, leading to more severe weather patterns and a higher risk of crop failure and disease transmission.
Neira stated that the negotiators at Cop are negotiating with our health, regardless of whether they are aware or accepting of it.
Medical professionals have begun to raise their voices in concern over the negative impact weak climate policies have on human health, as the amount of scientific and medical evidence supporting this has increased. In the previous year, the director general of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated that subsidizing and burning fossil fuels is an act of self-harm.
Paraphrasing his statement, Neira stated that public health professionals can no longer avoid discussions about energy. She also mentioned that the WHO has acknowledged its impact on health.
“We initially argued against providing subsidies for activities that are detrimental to our well-being,” she stated. “Now, we are advocating for the gradual elimination of fossil fuels in the interest of promoting good health.”
According to the WHO, a quarter of the global burden of disease is caused by environmental risk factors. Implementing effective measures to address climate change could also prevent the loss of millions of lives due to other risk factors.
Neira stated that by ceasing the burning of fossil fuels, one of the most immediate advantages would be a decrease in the 7 million deaths caused by exposure to air pollution.
Furthermore, she stated that implementing more environmentally-friendly and nutritious diets could potentially prevent 5 million deaths annually. Additionally, improving transportation methods would also lead to millions of saved lives by promoting more active lifestyles and reducing exposure to air pollution.
Neira suggested implementing a health checklist for all mayors and prime ministers globally, holding them responsible for the health-related choices made by their cabinet members. This approach could also be applied to negotiators at Cop.
Advocates are urging policymakers to address fossil fuels as a matter of public health, drawing parallels between the climate emergency and the dangers of smoking. Similar to tobacco companies, oil and gas corporations have long been aware that their products contribute to societal harm, yet they perpetuated skepticism and funded studies to minimize the impact.
Neira, a physician hailing from the northern region of Spain, has been in charge of the World Health Organization’s environmental health division since 2005. She has also held positions as a deputy minister of health in Spain, provided guidance to the health department of Mozambique, and collaborated with Médecins sans Frontières in refugee camps in El Salvador and Honduras during periods of armed conflict.
During the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28), she declared that the World Health Organization (WHO) will adopt a no-tolerance attitude towards addressing the issue and advocate for investments in essential areas like healthcare facilities and access to clean water without hesitation.
The feeling of disappointment is immense. However, as a public health worker, one cannot allow oneself to be disheartened. It is essential to remain resilient and determined, otherwise, the opponents will prevail. I have a natural inclination towards optimism and I will continue to speak out until I am no longer able to.