With Planet Earth running a fever, U.N. climate talks focused Sunday on the contagious effects on human health.
Under a brown haze over Dubai, the COP28 summit moved past two days of lofty rhetoric and calls for unity from top leaders to concerns on health issues like the deaths of at least 7 million people globally from air pollution each year and the spread of diseases like cholera and malaria as global warming upends weather systems.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was high time for the U.N. Conference of Parties on climate to hold its first health day in its 28th edition, saying the threats to health from climate change were “immediate and present.”
“Although the climate crisis is a health crisis, it’s well overdue that 27 COPs have been and gone without a serious discussion of health,” he said. “Undoubtedly, health stands as the most compelling reason for taking climate action.”
After two days of speeches by dozens of presidents, prime ministers, royals and other top leaders — in the background and off-stage — participants were also turning attention to tough negotiations over the next nine days to push for more agreement on ways to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times.
Temperature rises have worsened natural disasters like floods, heat waves and drought, and caused many people to migrate to more temperate zones — in addition to the negative knock-on effects for human health.
John Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, said it was “astonishing” to him that it’s taken so long for health to become a centerpiece of the climate discussion.
“Our bodies are ecosystems, and the world is an ecosystem,” Kerry said. “If you poison our land and you poison our water and you poison our air, you poison our bodies.”
He said his daughter Vanessa, who works with Tedros, “repeats to me frequently that we should not measure progress on the climate crisis just by the degrees averted, but by the lives saved.”
A COP28 declaration backed by some 120 countries stressed the link between health and climate change. It made no mention of phasing out planet-warming fossil fuels, but pledged to support efforts to curb health care sector pollution, which accounts for 5% of global emissions, according to the WHO head.
Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, head of climate and health at WHO, said heat alone has put pressure on the body and led to higher rates of infectious disease.
“Climate change doesn’t need to be on a death certificate for us to be confident that climate change is causing deaths,” Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, WHO’s head of climate and health, said.
Dubai, the largest city in oil-rich United Arab Emirates, often faces higher levels of air pollution than other places on Earth due to its location — and haze is common. The city sits on the coast of the Persian Gulf, but further inland begins the Empty Quarter, the massive desert that takes up a third of the Arabian Peninsula.
The city's boom has led to rapid construction, industrial areas and pollution from automobiles, adding to the impacts of sand and particulate churned by the desert winds. Some 3.5 million people now live in Dubai, up from 183,000 less than 50 years ago, and estimates suggest another million commute into the city-state each day for work.
The Dubai government, on its web site devoted to the environment, listed its Air Quality Index level mostly at “good” on Sunday. Switzerland-based IQAir, a technology company that sells air-quality monitoring products, listed Dubai as the city with the 18th-worst air quality in the world with “moderate” air quality levels as of noon local time on Sunday. It cited high levels of two types of particulate matter in the air, and recommended mask-wearing for “sensitive groups” and a reduction of outdoor exercise.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell and Peter Prengaman contributed to this report.
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