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Healthcare organisations at COP26 highlight how climate crisis impacts health

For the first time, the WHO has a pavilion at the UN climate change conference.
For the first time, the WHO has a pavilion at the UN climate change conference.ST PHOTO: AUDREY TAN

GLASGOW - The healthcare sector has a larger-than-usual presence at the annual United Nations (UN) climate change conference this year, bringing attention to how the planetary crisis could impact human well-being after a year ravaged by extreme weather events from floods to wildfires.

For the first time, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has a pavilion where programmes on the intersection between health and climate are being held over the two-week duration of COP26.

Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, head of the climate change and health unit at WHO, tweeted on Nov 3: "At first-ever COP health pavilion, with full programme of 60+ climate and health events, in person and online, throughout COP. Mask on, raring to go for #HealthyClimate."

During the second week of the conference, for example, delegates can sit in on discussions on topics such as the spread of infectious diseases as the world warms and on the links between climate change, food insecurity and children's health.

Dr Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance - a coalition of healthcare non-government groups and professional organisations worldwide - told The Straits Times that there has been a growing recognition by the climate community that health is a climate change issue.

"There's never been a health pavilion at the COP before," she said. "There's been a health booth or a health stand, but a health pavilion with two weeks of programming focused on the intersection of health and climate change, that's new."

The WHO is on Saturday (Nov 6) also convening the Global Conference on Health and Climate Change on the sidelines of COP26 with the alliance.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the conference: "We have come together to highlight the unprecedented threat that climate change poses to human health and to raise the collective voice of health professionals in Glasgow and around the world."

He added: "Climate change is a global challenge, and the only way to address it is with a united front, working in partnership with many interlinking sectors, including energy, food systems, transport, finance, and others."

Last month, more than 550 organisations representing 46 million nurses, doctors and health professionals worldwide - about two-thirds of the global health workforce - signed an open letter to nations ahead of COP26, warning that the climate crisis is the single biggest health threat facing humanity, and called on world leaders to deliver on climate action.

Signatories included two Singapore organisations - the Singapore Paediatric Society and Third Spacing, a podcast run by local healthcare students.

The letter's publication coincided with the release of the WHO COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health, which establishes the inseparable links between climate and health, and highlights 10 priorities for safeguarding the health of people and the planet.

They include protecting and restoring nature, financing the green recovery, creating energy systems that protect and improve climate and health, and promoting healthy, sustainable and resilient food systems.

Asked the likely reasons for a larger presence of the healthcare community at COP26, Dr Miller said there are many in the healthcare sector who have for years been working to raise awareness on how climate change could impact human health.

"Unfortunately, we are also at a point where we are seeing the health impacts of climate change... all around the world and they're more dramatic and extreme," she added, citing record-breaking wildfires, floods and droughts that drive famines.

"It's become more undeniable for ordinary people, for every country and for the health community," Dr Miller told ST.

The Covid-19 pandemic could also have had an impact.

"The pandemic put people on notice about what happens when you have a global health crisis, and how serious and widespread and far-reaching the consequences of that are," Dr Miller said.

"Climate change is a looming health crisis. It's already unfolding. We don't want to see another global health crisis. We want to prevent this. And I think that has fed into the conversation around climate change as well."

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