Articles 1 and 4 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change charter make specific reference to human health, and the importance of seeing health as part of the broader need for bold action on climate change. To go one step further, we need to think of improving health as a key part of sustainable development, and a powerful indicator of poverty reduction.
Climate change cross-cuts multiple issues of health. Food security impacts nutrition, droughts and floods impact water quality and quantity, and energy access impacts indoor and outdoor air quality. Shifts in climate and weather also changes the pattern of disease and disease vectors. The fourth IPCC report describes findings that climate change is increasing the global burden of disease.
The poor in developing countries are most vulnerable because they are dependent on fragile ecosystems for their livelihood. For this reason, health must be treated as an integral part of sustainable development. The health of the environment is closely linked to the health of the populations that depend on it. Women and children in developing countries are the most vulnerable to the health impacts from climate change. For example, children are more susceptible than adults to malnutrition and communicable diseases from poor sanitation, and women are traditionally responsible for getting cooking fuels (i.e.: firewood) in areas with diminished access to natural resources.
More research is needed to create projections of how extreme weather from global warming will create health risks for vulnerable populations in developing countries. One of the persistent challenges to moving forward is that the health community is necessarily focused on short-term needs to deliver healthcare services and maintain access, especially to the most needy populations. In the long term, planning for supporting sustainable development for the positive health improvements is a necessary goal.
Future COPs can frame their work around health through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) targets, with an emphasis on integrated approaches in policy. The next frontier for addressing health within the UNFCCC framework is to locate it within climate adaptation funding. Climate change threatens to reverse the progress that has been made in global health. For example, the global reduction of malaria rates can be affected by warming temperatures and an expansion of the malaria vectors can can increase rates. The WHO says that countries that are unable to provide basic health services experiences disasters and climate sensitive diseases as a rate of 300 times the impact of countries that can provide basic health services. Adaptation can help to address this disparity by supporting funding and policy decisions that can build the capacity of vulnerable populations to adapt to predicted health impacts from climate change. Health care professionals are not among the typical COP participants, however, their contributions to the negotiations could help to elevate the importance of health in tackling the climate change problem.