December 5, 2023
5 MIN READ
Members of the International Federation of Medical Students Associations hold placards during a protest demanding an end to fossil fuels at COP28 World Climate Summit, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Dec. 3, 2023/Reuters
LONDON: Delegates meeting at the COP28 summit in Dubai have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to fight neglected tropical diseases that could be worsened by climate change, the first time the annual meeting has addressed the impact on human health.
The summit host, the United Arab Emirates, pledged $100 million to the fund, with the same amount donated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Total pledges had reached $777 million by Monday.
Scientists and doctors say there is growing evidence of the impact of climate change on public health. Pakistan suffered the worst flood in its history last year, which scientists say was likely exacerbated by climate change. At its height, a third of the country was underwater.
More than 1,700 people were killed directly by the storms — but the ensuing health crisis took more victims. The floodwaters also provided a vast breeding ground for mosquitoes, leading to a 400% increase in cases of malaria in the worst outbreak since 1973.
World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus addressed delegates in Dubai Sunday.
“Although the climate crisis is a health crisis, it’s well overdue that 27 COPs have been and gone without a serious discussion of health. Undoubtedly, health stands as the most compelling reason for taking climate action,” he said.
So what impact is climate change having on human health?
Deaths from heat stress are on the rise, with 2023 likely to be the hottest year ever recorded. Scientists estimate that over 62,000 people in Europe died from heat-related causes in 2022.
“Heat-related mortality of adults over 65 years of age, a very vulnerable age group, have increased by 85% since the nineties alone,” said Doctor Marina Romanello, the executive director of the Lancet Countdown, a collaborative project observing the patterns of climate change and health. “And we now know that more than half of that increase wouldn’t have occurred if temperatures hadn’t increased — so we know that it’s climate change that caused this today,” she told Reuters.
More intense storms, driven by climate change, are exacting a heavier death toll. Storm Daniel, which hit Libya in September, likely killed tens of thousands of people — although the exact death toll isn’t known.
There are wider consequences of intense rainfall, according to Jaime Martínez-Urtaza, a geneticist and microbiologist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
“In coastal areas, a phenomenon is observed: warming is linked to lower salinity because frequent extreme rainfall causes rainwater to flow into the sea and salinity to drop,” Martínez-Urtaza told The Associated Press. “And these two components promote favorable conditions for human pathogenic bacteria of the genus Vibrio, including very important pathogens such as vibrio-cholera, which causes cholera, and Vibrio-parahaemolyticus, which causes gastroenteritis.”
As well as the spread of malaria through mosquitoes, diseases like river blindness and sleeping sickness are transferred by parasitic worms and flies, organisms that would proliferate in a warming world.
Among the biggest killers is air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, which is associated with an estimated 7 million deaths annually.
“The climate crisis is a health crisis,” said Doctor Yseult Gibert, a Canadian physician specializing in the impact of climate change on human health at Johns Hopkins University. “It affects you with air pollution — of course, that’s what people might think of right away. So, your lungs, plus your cardiovascular system — that’s your vessels and your heart. But it will also affect the rise of infectious disease, more antimicrobial resistance. And of course, all the refugees, climate refugees that are going to be in [an] unstable condition [in terms of] food security,” she told Reuters.
Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state, told COP28 delegates that women’s health is disproportionately affected by climate change.
“They are more likely to be affected by natural disasters, and particularly by extreme heat. They’re in fields. They’re in factories. They’re in markets. They’re doing all kinds of work that becomes absolutely impossible if temperatures get to 40-50 degrees centigrade,” Clinton said Sunday.
More than 120 countries at COP28 signed a declaration acknowledging responsibility to safeguard human health in a warming world. Critics say it made no mention of cutting fossil fuels, the main source of greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.