BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Swift action to tackle climate change would reduce the damage to global health caused by rising air pollution and more extreme weather, top U.N. officials said on Wednesday.
Christiana Figueres, head of the United Nations climate change secretariat, told the first global conference on health and climate in Geneva that climate change is an "accelerating phenomenon that is already affecting, in particular, the most vulnerable populations due to impacts that are no longer preventable".
"At the same time, climate change is a global reality that threatens to impose much more severe and widespread health impacts, which could be avoided with timely measures," she added.
Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), which is hosting the gathering, said there is "overwhelming" evidence that climate change endangers health. “Solutions exist and we need to act decisively to change this trajectory,” she said.
The most recent WHO data shows climate change is already causing tens of thousands of deaths every year due to shifting patterns of disease, extreme weather events, such as heatwaves and floods, degradation of water supplies and sanitation, and negative effects on agriculture.
Figueres warned that climate change is "not very far" from becoming a public health emergency of international concern, requiring a coordinated response.
The use of fossil fuels to meet growing energy demand is increasing respiratory disease and cancer from carbon pollution, she said. Changing rainfall patterns are making clean, safe water scarce in some places and causing floods in others, bringing health problems and food insecurity. Meanwhile, rising global temperatures are expanding the ranges of vector and waterborne diseases, including malaria, dengue and cholera.
"As the world becomes hotter and more densely populated, and as the demand for food, water and energy grows, these health impacts will exponentially spread and accelerate, potentially overpowering the response capacity of health and disaster reconstruction sectors," she warned.
She described climate change as the symptom of a disease that is "humanity’s unhealthy dependence on fossil fuels, deforestation and land use that depletes natural resources".
AIR POLLUTION TARGETED
The Geneva conference, bringing together more than 300 participants including health ministers, is exploring ways to lessen the burden of climate change for global public health and to put health and climate issues on the agenda at next month's climate summit organised by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
In a statement, the WHO said fast action to mitigate climate change could realise unrecognised health benefits. Greener energy and transport policies could save millions of lives each year from diseases caused by high levels of air pollution, and may even alleviate disease associated with physical inactivity and traffic injury.
Measures to adapt to climate change could also save lives by helping communities prepare better to deal with heat, extreme weather, infectious disease and food insecurity, the health body added.
Dr Maria Neira, a WHO director, said the most powerful example of health benefits to be gained from tackling climate change is cutting the toll from air pollution, which was responsible for 7 million deaths in 2012, one in eight of all deaths worldwide.
Figueres, who is the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said the new global climate change deal governments are due to agree in Paris late next year "is actually a public health agreement".
"If strong enough, it will prevent the worst and chart a course toward a world with clean air and water, abundant natural resources and happy, healthy populations, all the requirements for positive growth," she said in a speech.
She urged health ministers to endorse a "meaningful agreement...so strong that it improves the quality of life for citizens now and for generations to come".