What's with the Climate?

Voices of a Subcontinent grappling with Climate Change

Protect our Climate, Protect our Health!

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The World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 people die annually already due to climate change-related causes (including in floods, droughts, and heat waves). It’s for this reason that the WHO chose to name World Health Day 2008 “Protecting our Health from Climate Change,” thus recognizing the fact that climate change will affect “some of the most fundamental determinants of health: air, water, food, shelter and freedom from disease,” as described by Dr Margaret Chan, Director of the WHO.

I was able to attend the event at Southeast Asian Regional Office of WHO on World Health Day — to perform a rap about climate change and health, no less — and heard the Regional Director speak about the threats to this region, where the health impacts are and will be enormous. Like everything associated with climate change, the impacts will not be equitably distributed throughout the world, and the threats are particularly frightening in India, with its large coastline and coastal population, large reliance on rainfed agriculture, and enormous population without access to basic health services already.

The massive migrations and health impacts caused by increasing floods AND droughts seem almost like a horror movie, and the rising sea levels will change both physical and cultural geographies due to mass migrations of climate refugees. All of these will not only impact physical health, but also create enormous mental health impacts.

However, the intersection of climate change and world health is not only that climate change will lead to direct health impacts, but that climate changes will exacerbate existing health problems and put greater stress on public health networks. Malaria is an issue the global health community is struggling to address, killing almost 1 million people annually, and warming winters will allow more malarial mosquito vectors to survive the cold seasons. Malnutrition is a problem that has not been solved despite the promises of the green revolution, still causing more than 3.5 million deaths a year, and the stresses of changing climatic conditions will only make the fight to survive an even more difficult battle. Lack of access to clean drinking water leads to diarrhoeal diseases, and increases in both droughts and floods are likely to decrease availability of fresh water. Urban sewage systems in India cannot treat the waste of existing populations, and with growing populations, rising sea levels AND increased precipitation, these problems will also be exacerbated. The global health community, and the general public must be aware of the impacts of climate change on health and prepare for these changes by expanding existing public health networks. Read on for more information and for lyrics to the rap performed on World Health Day 2008!

Dr. Chan, Director General of the WHO, wrote

We need to put public health at the heart of the climate change agenda. This includes mobilizing governments and stakeholders to collaborate on strengthening surveillance and control of infectious diseases, safer use of diminishing water supplies, and health action in emergencies.

This intersection between climate and health is actually demonstrative of even bigger issues of integrating adaptation into sustainable development. As Dr. Chan said, water supplies are already threatened by so many other human impacts – including overuse and massive pollution – such that melting glaciers, desertification and changing precipitation patterns will only increase freshwater scarcity. The forced migration and conflicts over scarce water resources, as witnessed in Darfur as Lake Chad shrinks, will only become more severe with climate change.

On the plus side, many of the ways we address climate change can also improve health directly. Reducing fossil fuel combustion will reduce the particulates in the air and other non-GHG emissions. Even, dare I say it, walking or biking to work rather than driving improves cardiovascular health and reduces emissions. Furthermore, indoor air pollution (primarily from cooking with dung, fuelwood or coal) causes 1.6 million deaths a year. Addressing climate change by finding more efficient ways to cook in rural areas (biogas, solar cookers, or more efficient solid fuel stoves) can greatly reduce the health impacts directly (and indirectly via emissions).

The Southeast Asian Regional Office of the WHO celebrated World Health Day with a performance by the music club of The Energy & Resources Institute, Pratibimb. The founders of the WHO 60 years may not have anticipated that the institutional birthday would be celebrated by a rap about climate change, but the world is full of surprises. As the Regional Director of WHO said, 60 is the year to retire, but WHO is still young and is never retiring — they might not be quite young enough to really be ready for rap, but I’m including a few of my favorite lyrics below, and will attach the recorded song as soon as I can.

The truth of climate change is all too clear;
We feel the climate impacts, they’re already here.
We know these climate changes will impact our health,
Threaten food security, safety and wealth.
Monsoons and floods are getting even stronger
While seasons of drought are getting even longer
Floods mean more drowning, and droughts mean starvation
Adaptation and mitigation offer salvation.

Our health is at stake, there are actions we must take
Let’s make it our mission to stop our emissions.

Warming waters lead to rising seas
With oceans submerging communities.
This heat increases storm intensities
Meaning bigger disasters with more injuries.
Climatic changes forcing families to move;
Mental health impacts are easy to prove.
Leaving home behind when your town’s going under
Breaks hearts and tears families asunder.

Our health is at stake, there are actions we must take
Let’s make it our mission to stop our emissions.

Climate change is shifting eco-zones;
More malarial mosquitoes entering homes.
Warming winters help vectors spread disease.
All these massive changes making climate refugees.
On the poverty line, the fight for life is getting tougher;
Old and young, the poor will be the ones to suffer.
The largest emissions come from the wealthy,
But can we afford to keep the world healthy?

Our health is at stake, there are actions we must take
Let’s make it our mission to stop our emissions.

Addressing climate change also makes cleaner air;
Improved respiration everywhere.
We’ll protect our climate and our health when we conserve;
Save our children’s planet, as they deserve
Reducing our emissions and stopping pollution,
You know that we’re all part of the solution.
So on World Health Day 2008
Let’s be the change we wish to create.

Our health is at stake, there are actions we must take
Let’s make it our mission to stop our emissions.


Author: Caroline Howe

Caroline Howe explores how to get more people excited about sustainability, through education, new technology, financial tools, and community engagement. She's particularly passionate about engaging young people in developing community based solutions to environmental challenges. This has taken her to five continents, working with her start-up, Loop Solutions, as well as with NGOs, youth groups, companies, UN agencies, and a ton of fantastic youth leaders.

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