Global Climate Summit Puts Health on the Agenda

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By Columbia Mailman School of Public Health

The COP28(link is external and opens in a new window) climate summit is now underway in Dubai during what is virtually certain to be the hottest year on record. The summit is also noteworthy for being the first to highlight the health impacts of climate change and work toward addressing them in a meaningful way.

Continuing through December 12, the UN-sponsored summit is the largest such gathering to date, with some 70,000 delegates, and world leaders, and senior officials from nearly every nation in attendance. Additional participants include business leaders, young people, Indigenous Peoples, journalists, and scientists, including faculty from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

COP28 is welcoming a record number of ministers of health who will participate in the first-ever COP Health Day(link is external and opens in a new window) on December 3. A high-level session will seek to galvanize cross-sectoral collaborations to realize the health benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It will launch the COP28 Declaration on Climate and Health, reflecting countries’ priorities on the growing health impacts of climate change, and supporting the mainstreaming of health in the climate agenda. The session, which is hosted by the COP28 Presidency, the WHO, and the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Health and Prevention, also aims to secure funding pathways to safeguard and invest in health in a changing climate. Separately, WHO and the Wellcome Trust are hosting a Health Pavilion, to convene the global health community and key stakeholders across various sectors to ensure health and equity are placed at the center of climate negotiations.

The Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education (GCCHE) at Columbia Mailman, which boasts 300 members in 60 countries, is co-hosting a networking reception at COP28. Its goal: bring together health-focused governmental and non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, community organizations, youth organizations, and health professionals working at the nexus of health, climate, and environment, to facilitate idea-sharing and further collaboration. (Watch a short video about GCCHE here.) In addition to taking part in the networking reception, GCCHE Director Cecilia Sorensen, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia Mailman and associate professor of Emergency Medicine at Columbia Irving Medical Center, is also participating in an event organized by the WHO titled “Integrating Health into Climate Change Responses—the Role of Health Professionals.”

Ahead of traveling to Dubai, Sorensen said she was encouraged that health is being featured at this year’s COP for the first time. “Health is fundamental to the impacts of climate change, which are already deeply harming the health of vulnerable populations,” she said. “Further, by placing health at the center of agendas, there are incredible co-benefits which can be realized, both economically as well as through improvement of livelihoods globally.”

The COP meeting comes on the heels of a report(link is external and opens in a new window) by the non-profit organization Climate Central which finds that the past 12 months were the hottest on record. This year has seen extreme temperatures in the Southwest and West of the United States, as well as wildfire smoke that triggered air quality warnings and unhealthy conditions in New York and other parts of the U.S. A large study recently published in The Lancet(link is external and opens in a new window) finds that the climate is having a worsening effect on health and mortality worldwide with a large spike in heat-related deaths among older people.

Sorensen continued, “Our hope for COP is to see strong commitments from the international community to increase investment in and focus on health and to apply a health lens in all climate policy. This includes building capacity of the health sector to prevent, prepare for, and mitigate health impacts on communities and the health care sector itself.”

The Columbia Mailman School, which in 2008 launched its Climate and Health program, the first of its kind in a school of public health, participated in 2015’s historic COP21 in Paris, which saw the negotiation of the Paris Accords with its goals to limit global temperature rise. There, the School co-hosted a dinner with the White House to promote science and education around climate and health. Earlier that same year, President Barack Obama cited Columbia Mailman-led climate and health research.

Since 2008, faculty have contributed seminal studies on the health risks from intensified heat waves and hurricanes to the migration of insect-borne diseases and the nutrition impacts of climate change. This year, Robbie Parks, assistant professor of environmental health sciences, led research on the increasing lethality of hurricanes, especially for the socially vulnerable. Another study examined how elevated temperatures from global warming may contribute to rising drug and alcohol disorders.

“Never has there been a more fitting time for health to be on the agenda at COP, with recording-breaking heat waves, wildfires, tropical cyclones, floods, and drought worldwide causing devastating impacts on our lives,” said Parks, who is attending the summit. “The fact that health is front and center in Dubai means that during negotiations it will hopefully act as an effective lever to persuade the most entrenched parties that, without immediate action and funding on loss and damage and phasing out of fossil fuels, our very lives are at risk.”

Along with health, for the first time, food security will get a prominent seat at the table at COP28; leaders are expected to sign a special food declaration and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization will create a roadmap for how the world can feed a growing population while staying within the limits of the Paris Accords. Environmental Health Sciences Professor Lew Ziska, a plant physiologist with expertise in climate change, said, “Given the steady increase in hunger since 2019, and the risk to food systems from climate change, nutrition and public health should be the number one topic for discussion.”

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