Previously unrecognized health benefits could be realized from fast action to reduce climate change and its consequences. For example, changes in energy and transport policies could save millions of lives annually from diseases caused by high levels of air pollution. The right energy and transport policies could also reduce the burden of disease associated with physical inactivity and traffic injury.
Measures to adapt to climate change could also save lives around the world by ensuring that communities are better prepared to deal with the impact of heat, extreme weather, infectious disease and food insecurity.
First ever global conference
These are two key messages being discussed at the first-ever global conference on health and climate, which opens today at WHO headquarters in Geneva. The conference brings together over 300 participants, including government ministers, heads of UN agencies, urban leaders, civil society and leading health, climate and sustainable-development experts.
The health sector needs to act quickly and assertively to promote climate-smart strategies, climate and health experts warn.
“The evidence is overwhelming: climate change endangers human health,” says Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “Solutions exist and we need to act decisively to change this trajectory.”
Cholera, malaria and dengue highly sensitive to weather and climate
WHO and its partners highlight the importance of acting now to help protect health in the present as well as the future. The health community is working hard to improve its capacity for surveillance and control of infectious diseases such as cholera, malaria and dengue, which are highly sensitive to weather and climate.
Climate change is already causing tens of thousands of deaths every year from shifting patterns of disease, from extreme weather events, such as heat-waves and floods, and from the degradation of water supplies, sanitation, and impacts on agriculture, according to the most recent WHO data.
"Vulnerable populations, the poor, the disadvantaged and children are among those suffering the greatest burden of climate-related impacts and consequent diseases, such as malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition, which already kill millions every year”, notes Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General, Family, Women's and Children's Health. “Without effective action to mitigate and adapt to the adverse effects of climate change on health, society will face one of its most serious health challenges,” she says.
“But the good news is that reducing climate change can yield substantial and immediate health benefits” says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “The most powerful example is air pollution, which in 2012 was responsible for 7 million deaths - one in eight of all deaths worldwide. There is now solid evidence that mitigating climate change can greatly reduce this toll,” she adds.