Ready, set, heal the planet! Jonathan Pershing, Ph.D., the United States’ special envoy for climate change, is now in Marrakech, Morocco, one of the official representatives from nearly 200 countries attending the United Nations’ COP 22* climate negotiations, which began on November 7. Their ambitious task: forge specific plans for implementing the greenhouse-gas reduction pledges embodied in the 2015 “Paris Agreement” to keep global temperatures within safer limits.
Whether you find these distant events exciting or tedious, you’re probably asking yourself, “What are the connections between the U.N. talks and the work we do every day as health care professionals who are also climate advocates?” More than you might realize.
Making the Health Case
Health-focused NGOs are making their mark in Marrakech right now – at the scores of official “side events” running concurrently with the meetings themselves. These events provide a forum for “observer” groups who are not part of the formal negotiations to share knowledge and ideas on meeting the climate challenge and to build their networks of collaborators. Attendees come from the United States and all over the world, and simultaneous translation is usually provided in several languages.
There will be several side events on climate and health. For example, on November 14, Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the World Health Organization will present one themed Air Pollution, Climate Change & Health: Scaling up Solutions to Heal the Planet. On November 15, the WHO, the children’s advocacy group UNICEF, and a coalition of other groups will offer an overview on how the public-health community can support the implementation of the Paris Agreement for a healthier and more sustainable society.
UNICEF is also an example of how groups are using the talks as a way to leverage their own message. The organization released a new report, Clear the Air for Children, a week before the meetings and paired it with an official call for global action on air pollution. Their study shows that 300 million children globally, or 1 in 7, live in areas with the most harmful levels of outdoor air pollution – some even in U.S. cities. These pollutants are at concentrations much higher than international standards allow, and are linked to asthma, bronchitis, and other chronic ailments. UNICEF points out that many of the same disease-causing air pollutants also contribute to climate change. That means any solutions world leaders commit to – such as monitoring emissions and ramping up solar and wind power – hold benefits for both public health and the climate.
The now-annual U.N. negotiations last less than two weeks, but there are plenty of actions we can take all year long to contribute to a healthier atmosphere. And the facts call us to do so. As Dr. Pershing has cautioned, “Even if we were only able to halt the [temperature] rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is an effort we are seeking to do under the agreement, the damages would be severe.”
Thinking Globally, Acting Locally
One place we can start is in our parking lots and driveways. Americans love cars, but the transportation sector is responsible for emitting more than one-quarter of all U.S. greenhouse gases. Fortunately, there’s a lot of potential in cleaning up the auto industry. The American Lung Association of California recently analyzed the benefits of reducing air pollutants via a wide-ranging transition to electric vehicles (EVs) and other emissions-free autos by 2050. Their finding: These emissions cuts could save more than $33 billion in both health care and climate-related costs. And that’s just in the 10 states that currently have zero-emission vehicles sales programs!
This news provides another argument for switching local government fleets and health-care facility vehicles to EVs in every state – and for trading in your personal gas car for, say, a Volkswagen eGolf or Chevy Volt. Soon, there will be less worry about where to plug them in: A public-private consortium including the federal Department of Transportation, states, utilities and automakers is laying the groundwork for a nationwide, 2,500-mile network of 48 EV charging station “corridors,” so would-be owners have more places to plug in these quieter, zero-emissions cars. Thinking and talking about transportation choices are types of everyday “climate negotiations” we can start or join.
For health-specific updates on the U.N. talks, you can follow the Global Climate and Health Alliance at @GCHAlliance. If you’d like a closer look at events, the U.S. Center at UNFCCC will be broadcasting live at http://www.state.gov/USCenter. You can even submit questions via Twitter at @AskUSCenter.
For further ideas on talking climate with your peers and constituents at home, why not download ecoAmerica’s new American Climate Leadership Summit Recommendations Report. Its lessons confirm that climate leadership can come from anywhere, and takes many forms.
* COP 22 stands for ‘Conference of the Parties. It is the top decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international environmental treaty that entered into force in 1994.
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