I am looking at the sculpture of the lungs. A silver tree where the branches are the bronchi and the bronchioles. It’s set against an azure background. The visual is very effective: Health must be front and center. This is the World Health Organization (WHO) pavilion. There are screens around the place. One of them announcing the title of the session. Another shows a looped video inspired by the story of the girl who died at age 9 from air pollution. She was the first person in UK to have air pollution listed as the cause of death.
This set up marks a very different level of attention to the topic of health at UNFCCC’s Conference of Parties (COP). I first attended COP21 in Paris. That was the only agreement where the word “Health” was mentioned. And it’s been the only one since. And yet the presence of health contingency has come a long way since then. From what I have seen several developments have contributed to this. Both WHO and Lancet have continually produced highly educational reports in the months leading up to prior COPs. Many health organizations have worked hard to create of a community of health professionals at this convention and beyond. For example, Global Climate and Health Alliance has a policy coordinator that has served an in person and digital focal point. Academic programs that have started a climate and health curriculum have a presence. Health professionals themselves have also made it a priority to be active voices in civil society. They include nurses, doctors, pharmacists as well as other health based programs. I am here with the badge of International Society of Doctors for Environment and represent the non-profit I volunteer for (Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania). We have all persevered and held on to be the voice health.
COP26 in Glasgow was the first one where WHO hosted a health pavilion. And then continued onto this COP27 in Sharm El- Sheikh and as such it has established a constant reminder of the important of this topic. This year for the first time another pavilion emerges with a key concept: the climate justice pavilion. They along with other pavilions have sponsored health based sessions promoting cross-collaboration.
Health is the thread that runs across all the topics. When the discussion is about loss and damages, what is lost from climate events is loss of lives and livelihood. When we talk about adaptation, the end result is to adapt so that communities can remain healthy. Nationally Determined Contributions need to keep in mind that there is not one country in the world that would not want health for its people. And health is the outcome that mobilizes people. Many people are moved to do something to protect their health. And when presented in context of policy, health should be a right. Many climate justice nations are extremely worried because the health of their people is in jeopardy.
It will remain to be seen whether the importance of health will be truly recognized in the negotiations. But seeing the strength of the health delegations compared to all the prior COPs I feel much more confident that health just might become the language that unites all nations in coming together to address climate change.