Politicians who delay climate action must be prepared to live with the human consequences of their choices, warned Maria Neira, doctor responsible for environmental health at the World Health Organization (WHO).
“Whenever you put it off, okay, are you ready to deal with it? You have to live with the weight on your shoulders of the fact that at least you’re not saving these lives – I don’t want to say killing them – but at least you’re not protecting these people’s lives,” he told The Guardian.
Neira said doctors would make politicians understand the harm caused by burning fossil fuels at the upcoming UN climate conference, COP28, which will dedicate a day to health for the first time in its history.
“Nobody is going to leave the COP this year saying ‘Oh, I didn’t know health was affected’. We will ensure that this will not be the case. Everyone needs to know that it’s not just about climate, polar bears and glaciers. It’s about my lungs and your lungs“, he told the newspaper. “Whether you like it or not – you know it or not – the COP negotiators are negotiating with our health.”
Doctors have become more vocal about the harm weak climate policies cause to human health as scientific and medical evidence has mounted. Last year, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that subsidizing and burning fossil fuels was “an act of self-sabotage.”
The WHO estimates that Environmental risk factors account for 25% of the global burden of disease. Strong climate action would also save millions of lives that are lost due to other risk factors. “If we stop burning fossil fuels, one of the most immediate benefits will be the contribution to reducing the 7 million deaths that occur [por ano] due to exposure to air pollution,” said Neira.
According to her, A shift to more sustainable and healthier diets could save up to 5 million lives a yearwhile cleaning up the transport sector would save millions more through less sedentary lifestyles and exposure to air pollution.
Activists called on decision makers to treat fossil fuels as a public health issue, comparing the climate crisis to cigarette consumption. Tobacco companies, like oil and gas companies, have known for decades that burning their products was a danger to society, but they continued to sow public doubt and fund research to minimize the effects.
At COP28, she said, the WHO will take a “no excuses” approach to communicating the problem and will call for “no regrets” investments in areas such as hospitals and clean water. “The feeling of frustration is enormous. But at the same time, when you work in public health, you can’t afford to be frustrated – at all – because then they’re going to win. I am pathologically optimistic and will keep screaming until my voice disappears.”