WONCA in Bonn: Health and the climate negotiations

Photo: Members of the Global Climate and Health Alliance at a strategy meeting

The authors are members of the WONCA Working Party on the Environment: Alice McGushin is a junior doctor from Tasmania, Australia and is currently in the UK studying an MSc Public Health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. (Alice pictured at right accepting the Fossil of the Day Award on behalf of Australia) Courtney Howard is the President of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and a family-practice-trained Emergency Physician in the Canadian Subarctic.

Climate change is the biggest health threat of the 21st century--and tackling it is perhaps our best opportunity to better global health. How are current medical learners and health professionals interacting with international climate change negotiations?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23), took place in Bonn, Germany from the 6th to the 17th of November. We were among the observers attending COP23, Courtney on behalf of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) and Alice as a member of the World Medical Association delegation.

In the week before COP23, the Lancet Countdown launched its 2017 Report, with three key findings which helped to frame the health discussion at COP:
1. The human symptoms of climate change are unequivocal and potentially irreversible
2. The delayed response to climate change over the past 25 years has jeopardised human life and livelihoods
3. The past 5 years have seen an accelerated response, with momentum building across a number of sectors. The direction of travel is set, with clear and unprecedented opportunities for public health.

COP23 was presided over by Fiji. This put the spotlight on people from Pacific Islands and other small island developing states and low and middle income countries as those who are contributing the least to climate change, but are on the frontline of the impacts of climate change.

Health professionals, students and other interested individuals gathered for the fifth Climate and Health Summit, organised by the Global Climate and Health Alliance, the World Health Organisation and its European Centre for the Environment and the Health and Environment Alliance. The plenary featured stories of action from many excellent speakers, including the newly appointed WHO Assistant Director-General for Climate Change and Other Determinants of Health, Dr Joy St. John, WHO Director of Public Health and Environment, Dr Maria Neira, Cook Islands Minister for Health, Nandi Glassie and Lancet Countdown Director, Dr Nick Watts. Courtney was also among the presenters, discussing the achievements of CAPE and other health groups in Canada, including provincial and then national commitments to phase out coal and the Canadian Medical Association’s commitment to divest from fossil fuels.

Photo: Lancet Countdown Director Dr Nick Watts and WHO Director of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants Dr Maria Neira at the 2017 Climate and Health Summit

The Powering Past Coal Alliance, a pledge to phase out coal signed by 20 countries, led by the UK and Canada, was launched at COP23. With the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change and CAPE having both been active supporters of coal phase-out in their respective countries, a health representative was requested at the launch, which is an important signal that the health voice is increasingly being recognized as valuable within the climate community. Courtney spoke on behalf of the health community at this event.

The World Health Organization also organised a Presidency Event, and WHO head Dr Tedros launched the WHO Climate Change and Health in Small Island Developing States Initiative, stating that climate change is not a political argument in Fiji and other island nations – it is an everyday reality. Dr Tedros also met with members of the Global Climate and Health Alliance to discuss collaboration on adaptation and mitigation work in the service of health.

Another feature of the COP events is the Fossil of the Day award, organised by the Climate Action Network, highlighting the country doing the most to delay progress in negotiations and action on climate change in an entertaining ceremony. Alice gamely accepted an award on behalf of Australia, for the government’s support of the Adani Carmichael Coal Mine project in North Queensland.

Family doctors are specialists in communicating science in a way that is comprehensible and relevant to the person in front of them. We are also compelled to be advocates for the health of the communities we serve, be that at the local, regional or global level. Thus it is our duty to advocate for and lead action on climate change in order to protect the health of our current and future patients. We encourage all family doctors to engage with climate change policy at the local, regional and international level as well as take efforts to minimise the carbon footprint of our own health services and organisations.