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Climate Crisis = Health Emergency: Air Pollution, Pandemics & Displacement Make the World Sick

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Health leaders are warning governments of “unimaginable” health consequences from the climate crisis if world leaders don’t take decisive action to decarbonize. This week at the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, the Global Climate and Health Alliance presented a letter to the COP26 president signed by 46 million health workers who are calling for global climate action on health. Meanwhile, a delegation of mothers from Brazil, Britain, India, Nigeria, Poland and South Africa attended COP26 to deliver their own letter to the summit’s president that was signed by about 500 parent groups from 44 countries and calls for limits on air pollution. We go inside COP26 to speak with Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance and co-chair of the World Health Organization’s Civil Society Working Group to Advance Action on Climate Change and Health, and medical student Amit Singh, a member of Students for Global Health. “Climate change is a threat multiplier,” says Miller. “Increasingly, we’re recognizing that we can’t care for the patients and the communities that we serve if we don’t step outside the clinic and address this driver of health impacts, which is climate change.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Climate Countdown. We’re broadcasting from New York and Glasgow.

As this year’s United Nations climate summit enters its final scheduled day, negotiators are scrambling to arrive at a new agreement. This comes as the world health leaders are calling on governments to match their climate commitments to limit global heating in order to protect people from what they call “unimaginable” health consequences. This week, the Global Climate and Health Alliance presented a letter to the president of COP26 and the president of next year’s COP in Egypt signed by 46 million health workers worldwide who are part of a campaign calling for global climate action on health. These are some of the workers.

HEALTH WORKERS: I have seen rising rates of heat exhaustion; depression; double the normal number of asthma exacerbations; heart disease, heart attacks, stroke; problems with kidneys, hearts and lungs. I’ve seen children die due to the air quality on our streets; vector-borne diseases, as well as children’s diseases; and the worsening of psychiatric illnesses; stress and anxiety of not knowing: Is this flood going to come again? When the category 4 typhoon made its landfall, the hospital’s basement flooded. Heat waves close to 50 degrees; the unprecedented droughts and locust infestations; more frequent, longer and hotter heat waves are making my patients sicker.

I prescribe healthy air as a right for all children. I prescribe the rich nations to make the biggest cuts in emissions; to fund climate-health adaptation projects; to invest in reversal of the negative impacts; to build resilience; and tackle health and social inequalities; and stop investing in fossil fuels. Climate change is a health emergency, and it is my ethical duty to speak about it. We have a crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as a delegation of mothers from Brazil, Britain, India, Nigeria, Poland and South Africa attended COP26 to deliver their own letter to the summit’s president, signed by about 500 parent groups from 44 countries, calls for limits on air pollution. One of parents, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, had a daughter, Ella, who died last year from a rare form of asthma and is the first person in Britain to have air pollution officially listed as her cause of death.

An installation by artist Michael Pinsky at COP26 features giant pollution pods that mimic the air quality of the future in various cities to show the link between climate change and health.

For more, we go inside the COP, inside the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, to speak with two guests. Amit Singh is with us, medical student at University of East Anglia, COP26 National Working Group chair for Students for Global Health. And Dr. Jeni Miller is with us, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance, co-chair of the World Health Organization’s Civil Society Working Group on Climate and Health. She helped present the letter at COP26 from 46 million health workers.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jeni Miller, let’s begin with you. Talk about the connection between global heating, between the climate emergency, and health.

JENI MILLER: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you, Amy.

You know, it impacts — climate change impacts health in so many ways. You were speaking earlier about air pollution. The drivers of climate change are the same. Burning of fossil fuels also drive the air pollution that is killing 7 million people around the world every year. The heat waves — we’re seeing heat waves around the world. Just this year, 500 people died from a heat wave in western Canada. The extreme weather events that bring flooding have displaced tens of thousands of people with floods in Southeast Asia. We’re also seeing the spread of infectious diseases. We’re seeing malaria and dengue and Lyme disease spreading into new regions as a result of changing humidity, changing ecosystems, changing weather patterns. So the health impacts are — they’re growing. They’re significant. They’re touching every country in the world. And the most vulnerable countries are being hit the worst.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the letter that you, with a group of others, just delivered, representing tens of millions of health workers around the world.

JENI MILLER: Yeah, absolutely. So, as we’ve seen these impacts on health increase around the world, the health community has really woken up and become very activated around this. You know, doctors and nurses are used to treating people when they come into the clinic, come into the hospital, but, increasingly, we’re recognizing that we can’t care for the patients and the communities that we serve if we don’t step outside the clinic and address this driver of health impacts, which is climate change.

So, with this letter, organizations representing 46 million health professionals around the world came together around a letter articulating some of those health impacts that we were just talking about, and really calling for the level of action that we need to see, that we’re not yet seeing from global leaders.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why going beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, is extremely dangerous for people’s health? And can you directly relate the issue of the climate emergency with the current and future pandemics and epidemics?

JENI MILLER: Yeah, absolutely. So, we’re now at about 1.1 to 1.2 degrees of warming over preindustrial levels, and that — we’re already seeing these superstorms, heat waves, droughts, movement of infectious diseases, wildfires. That’s what we’re seeing at 1.1. One-point-five has been kind of identified as the limit beyond which we’re really anticipating catastrophic impacts on people’s health. And every 10th of a degree will make a huge difference in lives lost and health impacts.

You know, the connection with pandemics, climate change is a threat multiplier. So, when we have a pandemic and we’re also facing climate change issues, the ability to respond to that pandemic is impacted by the challenges of climate change, as well. And one of the places that we’ve seen that in this round is there were communities that were already facing drought-driven undernutrition and hunger. With the pandemic, that impacted supply chains and ability of people to move around and do what they needed to do, those communities were kind of really pushed to the brink of famine. So, that’s on the impact side.

I think, more generally, you know, human beings are putting pressure on our natural ecosystems. And we know that there are zoonotic diseases that transfer from wild animals to humans. The more pressure we put on those ecosystems, the harder it will be to prevent the next pandemic that may occur.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Amit Singh into this conversation, a medical student at University of East Anglia, which has an incredible climate division at the university, COP26 National Working Group chair for Students for Global Health. Can you talk about this COP happening in the midst of this global pandemic and how it’s affected attendance at the COP, when it comes to issues like vaccine equity? We started our first day by interviewing a leading climate activist, not at COP26, but in Mozambique, because she couldn’t make it there.

AMIT SINGH: Yes, definitely. So, that is the huge issue that we’re facing right now. The pandemic has meant that a lot of people who are in the Global South, as in countries within Africa, within Latin America and other countries like that, they can’t actually come to the U.K., firstly, due to vaccine access, as we already mentioned, but also due to things such as finances and visa applications not being accepted on time. Other delegates that I actually know within COP right now got their visas approved the day before they were meant to arrive, as well. So, some of them are preparing last minute and getting the funds ready last, last minute to actually represent their countries, represent their communities, to advocate for health for their communities in particular. And the pandemic has definitely played a huge, huge role in that.

We have seen how the pandemic has also, you know, decreased health equity, in general. Disparity between communities are prevailing more and more and more. Countries, again, in the Global South are being impacted more in the sense that not only do they not have more vaccines, the vaccines they actually need, countries in the Global North are oftentimes hoarding them, as well. So there is definitely a huge disparity there.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Amit Singh, about when ExxonMobil and other companies claim that when you raise these issues, you’re playing the health card, whenever healthcare is discussed at the COP? What does “playing the health card” mean?

AMIT SINGH: Playing the health card means saving lives. We are playing the health card, because the health card is the most important card to play. This is the only way to discuss climate change from the health community. We have to talk about how it’s going to impact people and their health, the amount of people that are going to actually die, sadly, as a result of climate change. We’re looking at 250,000 preventable deaths per year. So, playing the health card is the most important card that we can play, as that’s the desperation that we’re facing right now.

And Exxon and all these other companies don’t want to recognize that. They want to belittle the most important aspect of this discussion, which is about saving lives, about saving people and making sure that people live good-quality lives, not just live lives that are, you know, disparaged and unhealthy, but lives that they actually deserve to lead, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about medical students organizing around the world, Amit.

AMIT SINGH: Yes. So, medical students all around the world are actively working on climate change and health. We are seeing the impacts of climate change on our own patients already, you know, going into clinics and seeing how patients are being impacted by air pollution, from heatstroke and so on. We’re seeing that every single day. And not only is it hard to see and sad to see the resources being put to use in a situation where we could prevent these issues occurring, it’s also, sadly, very traumatic for a lot of these medical students and doctors, as well.

So we’re working as hard as we can all across the globe to call on health equity, to call on vaccine equity, to make sure the voices from those who are most impacted, in particular, are heard. Alongside that, we’re focusing on making sure that there is actual justice transition. We want to create change where our economic system is actually related to the health of our community. We want to create a well-being system, a Green New Deal which allows healthcare workers to actually play a clean role in our environment, as well, making sure that we reduce actual diseases, but also we’re looking to make sure that we don’t actually increase those emissions that a lot of people in the sustainable healthcare system have not actually been working on so far.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go back to Jeni Miller. And if you could talk more specifically about diseases and how they relate to the climate catastrophe? For example, the World Health Organization reports over 250,000 additional people die each year — and you referred to some of this before — malaria, diarrhea, heat stress caused by climate change. What is adaptation funding? How can this be dealt with?

JENI MILLER: Yeah, so, I mean, adaptation — so, first of all, mitigation is critically important. We will not be able to adapt to climate change if we don’t slow it down. Like, if climate change is unabated, we won’t be able to adapt enough to keep up with it.

But that said, we’re already seeing the impacts widely now. And currently there is not enough funding being put into adaptation, particularly funding that’s been promised for years from wealthier countries to lower-income countries to help them address the climate challenge. A significant proportion of that funding that has been made available has gone towards mitigation, not towards adaptation. The promised amounts have not been met. And in adaptation funding that is being leveraged, very little of it is going towards health and strengthening health systems.

So we need to see significantly more funding being allocated to adaptation. We need wealthy countries to meet the promises they’ve made, and actually bring in more funding, because these kind of most impacted countries, the lower-income countries, are really struggling to keep up with the health impacts that they’re seeing, as well as the impacts on their health systems themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year —

JENI MILLER: So, we would really like to see stronger funding.

AMY GOODMAN: We spoke to Sonia Shah last year, science investigative journalist, author of Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond. I asked her about the connection between the climate crisis and coronavirus.

SONIA SHAH: The climate crisis is resulting in tens of thousands of wild species moving into new places. It’s scrambling our migration patterns. And so that’s going to contribute to this broader phenomenon of people and wildlife coming into new kinds of contact. We can see with, for example, deforestation, that when you cut down the trees where bats roost, for example, they don’t just go away. They come and roost in your back gardens and your farms and your yards instead. And that allows people and bats to come into new kinds of contact. And the microbes that live in their bodies, which don’t cause them any kind of disease, can spill over into human bodies. And that’s how we turn animal microbes into these epidemic- and pandemic-causing pathogens.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeni Miller, your final comment?

JENI MILLER: You know, the outcomes for COP are still being negotiated. We want to see strong commitment to limiting warming to 1.5. We want to see strengthened funding for adaptation that’s given to lower-income countries so they can have the resources they need to adapt. And we want to see follow-through on all of these commitments. It’s critically important that we be taking action now.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Amit Singh, as you head back to your university and you continue your training as a doctor, can you talk about what you bring from this, and your demands of this climate summit?

AMIT SINGH: Yes. So, firstly, I demand 1.5. Right now the negotiations are working towards 2.4 degrees. As Jeni has already mentioned, this is just not sustainable and not healthy for our communities at all.

Secondly, I demand that the countries that have broken the promise of $100 billion actually stick to that promise, increasing that promise, making sure that the countries that do not have the funding to actually act on this climate crisis can be supported. This funding must not be a loan, but it has to be a grant. It has to be something that they don’t have to pay back, because this money was taken from them originally through impacts like colonialism, and through capitalism, as well.

So, when I go back to UEA, I’m going to bring this discussion to my local community, as well. I’m going to talk to my university. I’m going to talk to my local doctors, as well. We need to get the healthcare community together and act on this as a collective mobilization.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Amit Singh, medical student at the University of East Anglia, COP26 National Working Group chair for Students for Global Health, and Dr. Jeni Miller, executive director of Global Climate and Health Alliance, co-chair of the WHO, the World Health Organization’s Civil Society Working Group on Climate and Health, speaking to us inside the COP.

Next up, we go outside, because today there was a climate activist People’s Plenary in the COP26, followed by a walkout. Asad Rehman led that walkout. We’ll talk to him outside.

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Walkout: Outraged by New COP26 Pact, Civil Society Holds People’s Plenary & Leaves Climate Summit

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