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Health gets a guernsey in Paris

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The right to health has been explicitly recognised in the agreement negotiated at the United Nations Paris climate change talks, boosting hopes of an increasing focus on the health effects of global warming.

In its preamble, the Paris Agreement directed that, when taking action on climate change, signatories should “respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on…the right to health”.

Director of the World Health Organisation’s Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, Dr Maria Neira, hailed the declaration as a “breakthrough” in recognising the health effects of climate change.

“This agreement is a critical step forward for the health of people everywhere,” Dr Neira said. “The fact that health is explicitly recognised in the text reflects the growing recognition of the inextricable linkage between health and climate.”

Dr Neira said that health considerations were essential to effective plans to adapt to climate change and mitigate its effects, and “better health will be an outcome of effective policies”.

Under the Paris deal, countries have expressed an “ambition” to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, the point at which science suggests climate change becomes untenably dangerous.

While avoiding setting an explicit target, the signatory countries, including Australia, committed to “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius”.

Attempts to orchestrate concerted global climate change action have in the past been frustrated by arguments over who should bear the greatest responsibility for causing climate change and, as a consequence, who carries the greatest obligation to ameliorate its effects.

Developing countries have argued that industrialised nations have become rich on fossil fuel-based economic activity and should bear the greater share of the burden in adopting to its consequences.

But developed countries have countered that any progress they make in curbing greenhouse gas emissions should not be simply offset by an increase in emissions from emerging economies.

The Paris agreement has sought to break the impasse by detailing a framework of “differentiated responsibilities” for climate action. Developed countries are expected to take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but developing nations are also expected to contribute.

To help drive the global response, it is expected that by 2020, countries will contribute $US100 billion a year to a global fund to help finance emission reduction and climate change adaptation measures.

Though the agreement does not include any enforcement mechanism, countries are required to provide an update on their climate change action each five years, and each successive update has to be at least as strong as the current one, leading to what the framers of the document will be a “ratcheting up” of measures over time.

The promising outcome to the Paris meeting followed a call by the AMA and other peak medical groups worldwide for more concerted action to prepare for and mitigate the health effects of climate change.

In an updated Position Statement on Climate Change and Human Health released last year, the AMA highlighted multiple health threats including increasingly frequent and severe storms, droughts, floods and bushfires, pressure on food and water supplies, rising vector-borne diseases and climate-related illnesses and the mass displacement of people.

AMA President Professor Brian Owler said significant health and social effects of climate change were already evident, and would only become more severe over time.

“Nations must start now to plan and prepare,” Professor Owler said. “If we do not get policies in place now, we will be doing the next generation a great disservice. It would be intergenerational theft of the worst kind – we would be robbing our kids of their future.”

The AMA’s Position Statement on Climate Change and Human Health can be viewed at:  position-statement/ama-position-statement-climate-change-and-human-health-2004-revised-2015

Adrian Rollins