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The Climate Change-Health Nexus at COP21:
Moving Beyond the Environment

Jenilee Guebert, Senior Research Associate, G7 and G20 Research Groups
December 8, 2015

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank have all declared climate change to be the principal economic issue facing the world. The health community made a similar claim years ago — declaring climate change to be the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century. Such declarations should help spur actors that are concerned more with the economy and human health than with the environment to take action on climate change.

Regardless of the impact these statements might have on the agreement that comes out of the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris, the impact of climate change on human health is a very real concern. The World Health Organization (WHO) conservatively estimates that climate change will claim the lives of approximately 250,000 people between 2030 and 2050. These deaths will occur as a result of malaria, diarrhea, heat stress and under-nutrition. Scientific evidence shows that climate change affects the distribution of infectious diseases, including West Nile Virus and dengue fever. It will continue to affect air quality, which affects the distribution and severity of allergenic aero-pollens, respiratory disease and cardiovascular disease. Climate change also has an impact on mental health, including increasing anxiety and depression as a result of changes that have already occurred and about changes that might occur in the future.

Unfortunately, those who are already vulnerable — the urban poor, the elderly, women, children, traditional societies, subsistence farmers and coastal populations — are affected the most. Furthermore, as emissions continue to rise, and as populations become increasingly urbanized, these impacts will only intensify. Thus, as WHO notes, a strong agreement on climate change at COP21 would inevitably mean a strong agreement for human health.

However, despite the fact that evidence of the connection between climate change and health has intensified in recent years, this nexus has done little to spur countries to take action. The devastating impact of climate change on human health has not been enough to encourage countries to change course.

What hope is there that the statements from the IMF, OECD and World Bank will make any difference? Some. With economic growth a top priority for most political leaders, particularly those whose countries are the biggest emitters, evidence of the impact of climate change on economic growth might just goad leaders into action. If they are convinced that an effective agreement on climate change is necessary to safeguard their country’s economic health, that might just be what it takes to move beyond the Kyoto Protocol. And if countries come up with that agreement at COP21, it will likely be seen as a win-win-win for the economic, health and environmental communities, with all benefiting in the end.

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Aurora Hudson
Jenilee Guebert, JD, is a Senior Research Associate with the G7 and G8 Research Group and the G20 Research Group. She provides advice, guidance and research on global health and climate change, and how the two areas intersect. She leads the work on global health law. She has a JD from the University of Alberta and BA in political science from the University of Calgary in 2007. She has pursued academic studies at the University of Toronto, the University of Saskatchewan and Georgetown University. She has been involved in working with various governments, non-governmental organizations and multilateral institutions on how to address global health challenges, climate change and the global financial crisis. Recent publications include "Use and Misuse of Material Transfer Agreements: Lessons in Proportionality from Research, Repositories and Litigation" (2015), PLoS Biology 13(2): 1-12; "Implementing Socially Responsible Licensing for Global Health: Beyond Neglected Diseases" (2014), Science Translational Medicine 6(260): 1-4; and "Connecting Climate Change and Health: The Global Governance Gap," in John J. Kirton et al., eds., (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).

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