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Protecting Health from Climate Change

By Rachel Ravich, Ph.D., SPSSI UN/NGO Representative

The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, organized by the Economic and Social Council, is a High Level Forum that includes governments, inter-governmental, and non-governmental organizations. The Commission establishes a shared vision and guidelines for policy.  The 2008-2009 themes are: Africa, Agriculture, Drought and Desertification, Land and Rural Development.

A Panel Discussion at the UN on Protecting Health from Climate Change
On May 5th, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues co-sponsored a panel discussion on “Protecting Health from Climate Change” at the Seventeenth United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development at the United Nations Headquarters. The NGO Health Committee at the United Nations, and the World Health Organization were also co-sponsors of this event. The panelists represented three organizations that are leaders in the adaptation efforts aimed at promoting public health.

The World Health Organization was represented by Mr. Werner Obermeyer.  The United Nations Environment Programme was represented by Ms. Maaike Jensen.  The International Research Institute for Climate and Society, of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, was represented by Dr. Madeleine Thomson.  This event was chaired by Dr. Rachel Ravich, a United Nations Representative of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues and board member of the NGO Health Committee.

Climate and Health
During his talk, Mr. Obermeyer stated that climate change, which affects the most fundamental determinants of health, such as air, water, food, shelter, and freedom from disease, impacts the developing countries first and hardest.  The most vulnerable populations are those who live in regions where the health sector already struggles to prevent, detect, control and treat diseases.

Financing for Health and Emergency Relief Initiatives by the World Health Organization
Mr. Obermeyer emphasized that the economic downturn places an increased strain on public health, and warned that short sighted reductions in social health protection will be hard to turn around. He discussed new initiatives by the World Health Organization to finance health and development such as UNITAID, the innovative Finance Facility for Immunization, and the High Level Task Force on Innovative Financing.  He underscored the fact that health professionals are on the front line in dealing with the impacts of climate change, including post disaster recovery.  He also discussed the World Health Organization’s work on mental health and psychosocial support in emergency settings. 

The Role of Ecosystems
Ms. Jensen, of the United Nations Environment Programme, highlighted the importance of ecosystems in determining human well-being. Ecosystems, which perform essential services for disease and climate regulation, are under unprecedented pressure. Investing in ecological infrastructure, i.e. soils, forests, oceans, coral reefs, and wetlands, is a wise strategy since ecosystems play an important role in disease and climate regulation, and they contribute services to economies and livelihoods.

Initiatives on Health by the United Nations Environment Programme
Ms. Jensen presented the United Nations Environment Programme’s Global Green New Deal-Green Economy Initiative.  She also discussed several joint projects with the World Health Organization, such as the Health and Environment Linkages Initiative (HELI), the First Inter- Ministerial Conference on Health and Environment in Africa, and the upcoming International Conference on Children’s Health and the Environment.

The Bridge between Research and Policy

Dr. Thomson chairs the Africa Regional Programme and directs Impacts Research at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. She recognized the importance of incorporating climate information into health planning. As a field entomologist engaged in research in support of large-scale health interventions, she discussed her research on infectious diseases, and how climate affects their spatial and temporal distribution.

In her talk, Dr. Thomson, emphasized that establishing a causal link between climate variability and change and health outcomes is necessary but not sufficient to develop effective policies and practices for improving health interventions. Climate change mitigation and adaptation policies must be based on an understanding of what influences public health policy, practice and outcomes at the local, national, regional and global levels. 

The Sustainability Perspective
Overall, the discussion in the Protecting Health from Climate Change event, underscored the role of shared responsibility and cooperation in our interdependent world, and the importance of supporting interdisciplinary research and encouraging dialogue between the research and policy communities.  In conclusion, it expressed the hope that the sustainable development perspective with its economic, social, ecological and inter-generational dimensions will be incorporated in decision making at all levels in the future.


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