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Climate change & health: three days at a WHO event in Geneva while the RET sky fell in here

Last week saw the release of the report into the Renewable Energy Target (RET) led by businessman Dick Warburton which very unsurprisingly recommended the scheme be wound back.

While all that was going on, Professor Colin Butler, editor of the soon-to-be-released Climate Change and Global Health, was  in Switzerland, attending a World Health Organisation conference on climate change and health. In this very readable post below, he offers insights into the working of the event, who was inside and out, and how such an agenda is shaped:

Certainly delegates repeatedly called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies, for technological leapfrogging, and for a fairer world. But I was less convinced of sufficient appreciation of global inequalities, of limits to growth, and of more radical steps such as disinvestment and civil disobedience.

There were also some “no go” intellectual areas, including how climate change might aggravate the risk of large-scale conflict, migration and famine. As usual, the development-hindering role of rapid population growth was off the table.

***

Colin Butler writes:

The Australian immigration officer was unusually friendly. What kind of conference is it? “Climate change” I answered. “Good” he said. “You tell them, tell them about Maurice Newman and the others”. What he did not have to say was “tell them how these businessmen, self-taught on the issue of climate change, and with little if any scientific training, not only are able to expound their contrarian opinions on national media, almost unchallenged by hapless presenters, but are even able to directly influence national policy, on matters from disinvestment in “Earth poisons” (coal and other fossil fuels) to the Australian renewable energy target.

For months I had been hearing rumours of this conference on climate change and health, to be held at WHO headquarters in Geneva. Given the proximity in time to the release of my edited book on this topic (September 2014) I had been hoping I might be invited. I knew it was invitation only, and, even in July there was nothing on the web. But I was invited, and, still holding my Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, I had funds to travel; the WHO topic being relevant to my grant, which is “Health and Sustainability: Australia in a global context”. Although flights were not paid by WHO the flight carbon offsets were – this was the first carbon-neutral conference in WHO history.

The weather in Geneva was warm, its fields green. The frequent buses from town to OMS (the French abbreviation for WHO) were crowded with the variety of well-dressed people normal for Geneva. The Chernobyl and atomic energy protestors (who have maintained a street presence just outside the WHO precinct for decades) are still there, but more visible as roadworks have temporarily closed the normal bus-stop, so we all walked near to them.

Inside we were greeted by a large colourful sign, drawn by children, about climate change and health. More people than originally expected had arrived – 360, including several health and environment ministers (though none, as far as I could tell, from powerful countries). Australia sent a diplomat from the Geneva office who told me she found the proceedings unusually pleasant as there was so little overt politics. That may be so but there was still plenty of politics on display, e.g. ultra-deference to some, and the barely visible line that separates what can be said from what cannot be said.

Jürgen Habermas has described “critical-emancipatory” knowledge, characterised by Castree et al as “geared to challenging the status quo and creating a world predicated on new (or existing yet currently unrealized) ideals”. In some ways, the conference reflected this; in other ways, it may have reinforced old habits. Certainly delegates repeatedly called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies, for technological leapfrogging, and for a fairer world. But I was less convinced of sufficient appreciation of global inequalities, of limits to growth, and of more radical steps such as disinvestment and civil disobedience. There were also some “no go” intellectual areas, including how climate change might aggravate the risk of large-scale conflict, migration and famine. As usual, the development-hindering role of rapid population growth was off the table.

There was also a noticeable tendency, especially by the government delegates, of over-attribution. For example, climate change may well make dengue fever outbreaks harder to control, but it is not the exclusive factor.

Some big names in global public health attended, including Professor Ilona Kickbusch. Also from Australia were Professors Peter Sainsbury (former president of the PHAA) and his wife, Professor Lynne Madden, president elect of the AFPHM. Peter and Lynne were representing Fiona Armstrong and Dr Liz Hanna, respectively the convenor and president of the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA). The only other Australian delegate I knew was Dr Lachlan McIver.

The opening sessions were so crowded that the overflow filled two peripheral halls. Ours had a slightly party atmosphere, as, at least at the beginning, the audio-visual system let us down. Livestream watchers in Huonville may have had a better connection. But I did hear some – including by WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, Prince Charles and World Bank President – and public health expert – Jim Kim (the latter two by video-link). But we missed hearing Christine Figueres, of the UNFCCC.

Later the crowd thinned, on day two we were able to sit upstairs in the main hall, and for the very final session there was space downstairs for almost all. Downstairs, one certainly felt more a part of the main event than an observer.

This was the most hierarchical and diplomatic of the handful of WHO meetings that I have attended; that is because it had an unusually large number of people, and thus an unusually large number of politicians, diplomats and civil society representatives, including of medical student groups.  Naturally, at a UN-affiliated meeting, these dignitaries come first. But there were also brief summaries of the science (including by Prof Alistair Woodward), discussion about the conference statement, and a focus on sub-issues such as nutrition, health promotion and strengthening health resilience.

The final day included a session on the economics of climate change, presented by Jeremy Oppenheim, program director for the New Climate Economy project, one of whose commissioners is Sharan Burrow, now General Secretary for the International Trade Union Confederation. Dr Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ was prominent, as was Sir Andy Haines, former director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

There is a detailed summary on the web – including nine pages of the WHO Bulletin. The background paper Strengthening Health Resilience to Climate Change repeated the three tier classification of health effects in the IPCC health chapter. My book uses a somewhat similar three way structure, and I’m very much hoping that classification will be cited in the next version of this paper.

I wish I believed more in the carbon offset industry, I would have less carbon guilt; even so, I’m glad I attended. It might even be seen as an historic event, one day. Certainly, WHO deserves great credit for its leadership in this vital area.

Colin Butler is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow based at the Faculty of Health, University of Canberra, and a Visiting Fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University.

 

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Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
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Health Workforce Australia 2013
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