From 1-11th June I was part of the International Federation of Medical Students Association’s (IFMSA) delegation at the UNFCCC intersessional’s in Bonn. The IFMSA has been engaging diligently in the UNFCCC process for over 5 years working to reinforce the climate and health nexus within the negotiating text. Our efforts have been greatly appreciated by delegates and the global climate policy community, as there is a relatively small health community engaging with the UNFCCC, despite the recognition that climate change is the “greatest threat to global health of the 21st century” (1). Last December, our work was rewarded in the Lima Call for Action where health was placed firmly in the preamble of the text (2). We entered these intersessionals with positive spirits, due to recent successes of the World Health Assembly, which took place in Geneva the previous week. This resulted in a resolution on the public health dangers of air pollution and the need to phase out fossil fuels in order to both tackle ill-health from pollution and reap co-health benefits of climate change mitigation (3). However, as we head towards COP21 in Paris, which aims to produce a legally binding global agreement, there is concern that the need to dramatically shorten the text will force certain issues into the side-lines. Our aim from now until Paris is to use the contacts we have made at these intersessionals and previous COPs to coordinate a larger coalition of countries that will provide a strong position on health in the new global agreement.
This was my first experience as a delegate at the UNFCCC, and despite not having particularly high expectations, I must admit that the pace of the talks was even slower than I had expected. Negotiations hardly got further than discussing commas and brackets and how these could be used to shorten the text from its former 96 pages to something more manageable. However, after day 6 they had only managed to cut this down to 86 pages, and nothing of the substance of the text had even begun to be discussed. This was frustrating for many of the organisations who had come to lobby delegates on a breadth of issues which need to be included within the text such as human rights, intergenerational equity, gender and health. Being part of the youth constituency, I found there were many barriers to prevent our voices being fully considered. From informing us of interventions less than hour before, not providing adequate translation services, giving us interventions only at the end of sessions and forcing our creative actions to be within strict rules and regulations; our opportunity to represent young people, who are going to be most impacted by the decisions, was severely restricted. The lack of representation of the Global South also made me question the legitimacy of the process. How are we supposed to go about constructing effective policy solutions when those suffering the most from climate change are not represented? Of course, this is not an issue unique to climate change policy, but to witness this stark injustice in reality was a powerful reminder of the need for change.
After spending the past year being involved with local and national action on climate change and health, the pace and level of engagement at these high level negotiations was at best disheartening. It is clear we cannot wait upon the UN to ensure effective solutions to the impending and already tangible impacts of climate change. Whilst the IFMSA and others will continue to be at the forefront of ensuring a legally binding and successful agreement that will protect and promote global health, we rely upon a forward thinking global health community to implement solutions in their own communities. This needs to go beyond acknowledging the intersections between ecology and health towards being part of the structural change needed to ensure a sustainable and healthy future.
This is a critical year for climate action and the implications of inaction on our health and our future is unprecedented. I hope to continue to work within the UNFCCC, but also to bridge the gap between this process and community action which is a key part to building climate resilience. Through attending several side events during the conference I also found that public health provided an important and coherent narrative in which to address a wide range of climate change issues from food and water scarcity, air pollution, occupational and community health surround fossil fuel extraction, transitions towards sustainable active transport and rising infectious diseases in crops, livestock and people. It was clear that health is a powerful tool to provide an anchor of agreement in the UNFCCC, as well as provide a lens to engage a breadth of people with climate change. I look forward to tracking the progress of the UNFCCC and hope that an agreement in Paris will be reached that will mobilise the diverse and collaborative movement needed to save human and ecological life on this planet.
Costello (2009) Managing the health effects of climate change. The Lancet [pdf] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/global-health/project-pages/lancet1/ucl-lancet-climate-change.pdf
Lima Call for Action: http://unfccc.int/files/meetings/lima_dec_2014/application/pdf/auv_cop20_lima_call_for_climate_action.pdf
World Health Organisation (2015) World Health Assembly closes, passing resolutions on air pollution and epilepsy [online] Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/wha-26-may-2015/en/
Eleanor Dow – Medical student at the University of Edinburgh and coordinator of Healthy Planet UK, a network of students raising awareness of the links between climate change and health.