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Copenhagen accord does not bode well for developing world health

21 Dec 2009

Priya Shetty


After days of bitter wrangling, the Copenhagen meeting on climate change ended with an accord that has been heavily criticized for lacking the necessary bite to fix the health of the planet. This failure could also have devastating consequences for the health of the world’s poor.

The conference, the culmination of several years of scientific discussion on how pledges to cut emissions could slow global warming, was supposed to have produced a deal to ensure that the planet does not warm by more than 2ºC. While the accord does call on countries to aim for that target, with rich countries curbing emissions and poor ones stopping theirs from spiralling out of control, there are no binding agreements on emissions cuts. Some climate scientists say the lack of specific commitment means we could see as much as 3.5ºC of warming by 2100 – see New Scientist article.

Part of the problem seems to have been an impasse between the two emissions heavyweights – China and the ­US. China repeatedly refused to open itself up to any external monitoring of its efforts to curb emissions. Without this transparency, said Barack Obama and US officials, any treaty would be meaningless. Many developing nations, upset that they had not been fully involved in the discussions, agreed to the accord through gritted teeth. A notable few, including Cuba, Venezuela and Sudan, did not. The Sudanese delegate Lumumba Di-Aping went so far as to compare the proposed agreement to the Holocaust (see article in the Guardian, UK), calling it “a suicide pact, an incineration pact, in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries”.

The consequences of having a legally non-binding accord could ultimately be disastrous for health in poor countries – an issue that the World Health Organization attempted to highlight in a satellite session at the conference. In a recent report on global research priorities in tackling health and climate change, WHO called on the scientific community to treat the link between climate change and health as a key global health issue, rather than a standalone problem.

The report also called for: better risk assessments to inform decision-makers about the range of health impacts their populations could face; cost-effectiveness analyses of interventions to tackle the health effects of climate change; and applied research on surveillance needed to enhance early-warning systems. One of the biggest knowledge gaps, says the report, is the lack of quantification on morbidity and mortality attributable to climate alterations – for example, from a change in disease vector dynamics.

Delegates at the annual meeting of American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) last month in Washington, DC, heard evidence from scientists from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Columbia University’s International Research Institute, among others, on the link between climate variability and diseases such as malaria, cholera, and other vector-borne diseases. Mary H Hayden, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO, said that, “The evidence presented today suggests that climate change will exacerbate the challenges of controlling infectious diseases in the developing world”.

One positive outcome from Copenhagen has been the commitment by rich countries to offer financial support to help poor countries adapt to climate change. By 2020, developing nations should be able to tap into an annual US$100 billion fund. Nevertheless, the continuing failure to engage with the health effects of climate change is still a serious cause for concern. An editorial in the Lancet this week (19 December) co-authored by Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum and Anthony McMichael, who also contributed to the WHO report, outlined the extent of the problem.

“In the melee of discourse about climate change science, emissions targets and trading, differential responsibilities, and threats to livelihoods and residential security, we have not recognized the real issue,” the editorial says. “This absence of reference to health indicates a serious blind spot.”


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