What the Climate Community Can Learn from Global Health

By Sir Richard Feachem

The pace of recent human advancement is truly remarkable. Human life expectancy has increased more during my lifetime than during the previous 300,000-year history of our species. Extreme poverty has been cut by more than half in the past 30 years. Infant mortality rates are at an all-time low.

But there is one force that could radically upset this once-in-our-history transformation: Climate change — which evidence shows is well underway.

We don’t need to search far to see how climate change has affected the world. For example, dangerous heat and extreme weather events displaced more than 200 million people between 2008 and 2015. Air pollution caused more than 7 million deaths in 2016. And vector-borne diseases are spreading to new communities. These impacts show no signs of slowing.

The agricultural, food and water systems that we depend on are at risk, and the frequency and severity of droughts, floods, and fires are increasing. In fact, a recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change proves just how important tackling climate change is right now. The report shows the planet will reach a threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius — above preindustrial levels — by 2030, which will yield even more devastating consequences at our doorsteps. In other words, without action, climate change threatens to reverse decades of health and development gains. Simply put, climate change is a public health crisis.

Averting the coming climate catastrophe requires that countries unite around a “humankind first” approach with shared goals and shared investments to avoid planetary crises and to achieve planetary benefits.

There are reasons for hope. My five decades of working in global health have shown me that when we unite around a shared goal, tremendous progress can be achieved. The lessons from our past successes in global health can, and should, be applied in the fight against climate change.

Take for example the HIV pandemic that was raging out of control in the year 2000. In countries in Southern Africa, life expectancy was falling rapidly. Coffin makers could not make coffins fast enough. Nation states were facing collapse.

In the face of that public health threat, the world got serious. We established the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and a year later, the United States launched the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — two initiatives that have invested billions of dollars into the fight against HIV and AIDS. In parallel, medical scientists in both the public and private sectors brought us generations of better and safer drugs that provide lifesaving treatment while also massively reducing transmission. 

As with HIV, we have the scientific and technical knowledge needed to solve the problem of climate change. What we lack is a shared vision and the political will to get the job done.

Now is the time to leverage the lessons of the global health community and push forward a game-changing movement to bend the curve on climate change to protect our health and that of future generations. By framing the urgent need for climate mitigation through the lens of global health, I believe the climate community can build the momentum and public will needed to turn the tide.

To start, governments of all countries need to make fighting climate change a priority — and by putting health at the heart of the climate agenda, I believe we can accelerate progress toward our goals under the Paris Agreement, moving toward a zero-carbon future and saving millions of lives.

Also, governments, philanthropies, and the private sector must dramatically scale up their financial commitments to meet the size of the challenge. If our experience with HIV taught us anything, it was that turning ambitious goals into reality will always take more and smarter investments.

At present, the philanthropic sector devotes only 2 percent of its funding to the fight against climate change — this is not enough to advance the transformative change needed. Nonetheless, I’m encouraged by several philanthropic institutions, who came together to announce a $4 billion commitment to combat climate change at the end of the recently convened Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco this past month. I hope that the intersection of health and climate is a priority as these organizations decide how they will allocate their funds.

And finally, the health sector must join the fight if we want to drive true change. Health professionals around the world are already taking steps to advance health action for the climate. We must do more — from decarbonizing our own sector to building strong communities and health systems resilient in the face of climate threats. As health leaders, we also have to speak out to raise awareness about the grievous health impacts of climate change and health benefits of climate action.

When global leaders came together at the Global Climate Action Summit, they began the critical work to galvanize the partnerships, resources and the ambition needed to tackle climate change. At an affiliate event to the summit, global health leaders gathered at the University of California, San Francisco, to launch a call to action on climate and health, a policy roadmap for the health sector to accelerate strong climate solutions.

In a watershed moment for the intersection of public health and climate mitigation, more than 70 organizations from around the globe agreed to take action on 10 priority policies to protect lives and improve people’s health. The summit proved to be much more than a written commitment. During the summit, I noticed a remarkable change in tone toward a consensus that climate change is not a distant threat, but a current reality harming our health now.

Climate change is the greatest health threat and opportunity of the 21st century. The health sector is leading the way as it calls on local, national, and global policymakers to act now to significantly reduce climate pollution and build climate resilience.

Our experience in global health, from smallpox to AIDS, has shown that profound global change is possible when bold and visionary leadership is combined with significant resources and strong political commitment. Much work lies ahead if we are to avert the dire predictions for the future. The time for that work is now because, with climate change, the well-being of our species hangs in the balance.

Sir Richard Feachem is director of the Global Health Group at the Institute for Global Health Sciences. This piece appeared originally at Devex.