Introduction by Croakey: In a warming world, climate action is also foreign policy and the Albanese Government’s commitment to repair Australia’s global reputation as a climate laggard will reap dividends in diplomacy and trade. This was the strong message from researcher Dr Wesley Morgan, speaking at a Climate Council briefing today.
It was exciting, he said, that climate action is being re-framed as a matter of national interest, and Labor’s pre-election commitment to bid for the 2024 United Nations climate conference to be held in Australia in partnership with the Pacific was an important opportunity.
Within two weeks of the climate election, the new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong have sent strong messages on climate during visits to Indonesia and Fiji. Wong commended Fiji’s leadership on climate change and acknowledged Labor’s commitment to working collaboratively on climate change across the Western Pacific region.
Below, Dr Takeshi Kasai, World Health Organizational Regional Director for the Western Pacific, discusses the importance of working together on climate change, saying “like COVID-19, climate change is a threat to health everywhere, but recovery together is possible”.
Takeshi Kasai writes:
During the last two years of COVID-19 we have learned that when health is at risk, everything is at risk. Health and people’s lives and the broader wellbeing of society are inextricably linked.
As the world looks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time that we applied this lesson to other health threats, in particular the existential threat of climate change.
Global work to reduce harmful emissions cannot wait. The very lives of the 1.9 billion people living in the Western Pacific are at stake.
It is also a code red for health, because climate change affects health in many different and profound ways – threatening our safe drinking water, clean air, supplies of nutritious food and the very shelters we call home.
If we don’t take action today, we are risking our health now, and in the future.
Pacific islands on the frontline
For Pacific island countries and areas, climate change is more than an abstract scientific or distant political issue. This is why climate change and environmental health is a particular priority for the World Health Organization’s (WHO) work in the Western Pacific Region.
Rising sea levels threaten to erode whole islands and atolls in the Pacific, and with them, people’s homes, cultures and communities.
A few years ago, I was visiting a remote island in Kiribati with one of my staff. As we were walking around she stared quietly at an area close to the ocean, pointing into the empty wetland and told me, “this is where the village I was born in used to exist.”
Every year, small island developing states, including Pacific islands, make up two-thirds of the countries that suffer the highest relative losses from natural disasters such as floods, storms and droughts.
Rising sea levels and increasing weather disasters are reducing access to fresh water, degrading beaches and reefs, and taking the land where homes and hospitals once stood. Pacific islands have the smallest carbon footprint but bear the biggest burden from climate change.
Beyond the Pacific islands, in the Western Pacific Region overall, around 3.5 million people lose their lives each year due to avoidable environmental causes. Every 14 seconds a person in the Region dies from air pollution, largely resulting from the burning of the fossil fuels which is also driving climate change.
While the health sector contends with many of the problems caused by climate and environmental changes, we have relatively little control over the factors that cause these problems.
However, that doesn’t mean the health sector doesn’t have a role to play – in fact, given the impact of climate change on health, we have a responsibility to act, and I believe we have an opportunity to contribute in two key areas.
First, WHO and ministries of health around the world – in partnership with other sectors including energy, transportation and urban development – can use our voices to help strengthen the argument for the broad-based actions needed to address climate change and environmental harm.
Reducing carbon emissions and slowing the pace of climate change are important ends in themselves but will also deliver important co-benefits for health by reducing the direct health impacts of climate change.
WHO and health agencies can also help to make the case for health co-benefits of reducing carbon emissions through tools such as the AIRQ+ air pollution estimator, which supports cross-sectoral dialogue on the health effects of exposure to air pollution and and inspires mutually beneficial actions.
The Carbon Reduction Benefits on Health (CaRBonH) calculation tool also allows colleagues across different sectors to quantify the physical and economic benefits for human health of improving air quality.
For those looking to argue for more green spaces in cities, the GreenUr calculator for green spaces helps to quantify the health impacts of these spaces.
Throughout the pandemic, the health sector has worked with sectors such as business, education, transportation and tourism to promote policies and measures like hand washing, physical distancing, ventilation, mask wearing and vaccination, to slow the spread of COVID-19.
We can build on this experience to step up our engagement with other sectors to deepen actions on tackling the climate crisis – as well as to promote the indirect, yet still very significant, health benefits which can come from this.
For instance, building cities which promote active transport – that is, encouraging people to walk or cycle instead of driving – can lower air pollution, with the benefits for respiratory and cardiovascular health.
This would also result in more physical activity, and in doing so help to reduce the burden of heart disease and other noncommunicable diseases.
Second, in order for the health sector to lead the way and inspire long-lasting, sustained and serious action across all sectors, we must show leadership by walking the talk, including through building sustainable, climate-resilient health systems that reduce the sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as mitigate its impacts.
Building sustainable, climate-resilient health systems means, for example, ensuring that health services have sustainable water, sanitation and healthcare waste services, and sustainable sources of energy.
It also means having climate-resilient infrastructure and technology, so that when a storm hits, the health system keeps functioning and providing care when people need it most.
Some Pacific island countries, including the Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Samoa and Vanuatu, are already on the road to making the switch to 100 percent renewable energy and using non-burning machines to dispose of infectious medical waste in health facilities.
Several Pacific countries are also making good inroads into strengthening the climate resilience of health services, but there is much more to be done.
Strengthening the sustainability of health services in this way will ensure that health facilities are able to reduce the environmental impact of their services, and continue serving communities in the face of a changing climate over the long term.
A healthy, green recovery
In the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve learned that no country, community or sector is immune from the effects of illness, but recovery together is possible.
Just as the pandemic has shown what is possible through joint action, sharing resources and leading people to dream of a better future, so too – with the right actions – can we envisage, co-design, and own a healthy, green, just and collective recovery from climate change.
The time to act is now.
About the author
Dr Takeshi Kasai began his term as WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific in February 2019.
The public health career of Dr Kasai began 30 years ago when he was assigned to a remote post on the northeast coast of Japan, providing health-care services for the elderly. His early experiences there impressed upon him the value of building strong health systems from the ground up. Dr Kasai received his medical degree from Keio University in 1990; a master’s degree in public health from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in 1996; a diploma in tropical medicine and hygiene from the Royal College of Physicians in London in 1997; and a doctorate in medicine from Iwate Medical University in 2012.
Dr Kasai has worked for WHO for more than 15 years, and prior to becoming the Regional Director, was Director of Programme Management, the second most senior position at the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific in Manila, Philippines. Dr Kasai has also served as the WHO Representative in Vietnam from 2012 to 2014, and in 2014 received the For the People’s Health Medal from the Government, the top honor bestowed upon those who have made significant contributions to public health.
Read Croakey’s extensive archive of articles on global health.