OPINION: COP26 leaders must avoid a global ‘Squid Game’ where winners prosper, and losers perish

by Dr Hans Henri Kluge | @hans_kluge | World Health Organization
Friday, 22 October 2021 14:45 GMT

Ice sculptures of children created by Sand in Your Eye to highlight the importance of COP26, the global climate conference, are seen at New Brighton Beach on the Wirral peninsular in New Brighton, Britain May 31, 2021. REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff/File Photo

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We must not spiral into a devastating - and lethal - survival game where we struggle for our health, fight for natural resources and livelihoods"

Dr Hans Henri Kluge is the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe.

25 years ago, Tombé faced an impossible decision – much like the contestants in the hugely popular Korean Netflix series that has taken the world by storm. But for Tombé, it wasn’t fiction, nor was it a game.

For generations, his ancestors in Mauritania had lived off the land in a time when seasonal rains were predictable and plentiful, enough to sustain everyone in his village. But that was then.

As rain became less regular and cultivating food and livestock became more difficult, 25 years ago Tombé took a momentous decision that would change the course of his life. He left. And in an instant, he became a so-called environmental migrant long before the term was coined by the media and politicians.

“When we still had water, no one felt the need to leave,” he said.

Tombé migrated between continents to end up in France. His plight seems far away, with little relevance to you and me. But that is a grave miscalculation. Because today, climate change is happening everywhere, affecting everyone, forcing people to move between and within countries.

Last summer I visited one of France’s most famous wine regions, not too far from Tombé’s home in Paris. Many families have lived there for generations cultivating the distinct grapes that make this region famous. But with the climate becoming increasingly erratic, many of these families are looking at the prospect of relocating or finding other ways to put food on the table.

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reiterated that climate change is rapid and intensifying. We know that climate change knows no borders, although some areas will be affected sooner, some later, with varying intensity.

Tombé and his family were affected already 25 years ago. By 2050, an estimated 216 million people will be on the move within their own countries because of climate change. That’s nearly half of the population of the European Union. We can already see the effects: from more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as droughts, wildfires and floods to new patterns of infectious diseases.

As devastating floods swept across Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Luxemburg in July, people lost livelihoods and homes, while southern Europe and the Mediterranean suffered deadly wildfires. As extreme weather conditions and other climatic changes become more common, we will have to learn to live with the impacts of climate change. For all of us, climate change is - and increasingly will be - a health issue.

As world leaders come together for COP26 in Glasgow, we still have a narrow yet achievable roadmap to reach the 1.5-degree target, and we cannot afford losing this opportunity.

Now is the time to collectively address the existential threat before us. If we fail to keep global temperatures at bay, the impacts on our health will be profound and severe, affecting clean air, safe drinking water, food supplies and access to safe shelter.

Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year globally from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. The cost of direct damage to health is estimated to be between USD 2-4 billion/year by 2030. Areas with weak health infrastructure will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond to these changing needs. One billion children – an almost unfathomable number - are at extreme risk of climate impacts globally.

The time has come to stop thinking of climate change in terms of “us” and “them”. We must not spiral into a devastating - and lethal - survival game where we struggle for our health, fight for natural resources and livelihoods, and where those less fortunate, pushed out of the arena, are left to perish. We must avoid a real-life ‘squid game’ at all costs.

Let me be clear: When leaders sit down in Glasgow to negotiate the world’s common commitments to tackle climate change, the links between health, climate change and migration must be placed front and centre. We cannot forget that already today, millions of people are suffering the consequences and bearing the brunt of our changing climate, with major impacts on their physical and mental health, not to mention their quality of life.

We cannot accept a world where the privileged few are protected from the ravages of climate change while the rest of the world bears the brunt. Keeping our promise to leave no one behind means honouring the right to health in a changing climate for all, including refugees and migrants, from origin to destination.