Saturday, September 6, 2014

Climate Change and Global Health: WHO meeting, August 2014

This is an adapted version of my recent post on Croakey about the WHO (World Health Organization) conference on climate change and health, held in Geneva in late August 2014.

The Australian immigration officer was unusually friendly. What kind of conference is it? “Climate change” I answered. “Good” he said. “You tell them, tell them about Maurice Newman and the others”. What he did not have to say was “tell them how these businessmen (eg David Murray, Dick Warbuton (who claims to have an open mind about climate change but is sceptical of the role of carbon dioxide!) and former politicians (eg Nick Minchin) self-taught on the issue of climate change, and with little if any scientific training and even less understanding, not only are able to expound their opinions on national media, almost unchallenged by hapless hosts, but are even able to directly influence national policy, on matters from disinvestment in “Earth poisons” (coal and other fossil fuels) to the Australian renewable energy target.

Given the proximity to the release of my edited book on this topic (September 2014) I had been hoping I might be invited. Still holding my Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, I had funds to go; the meeting being relevant to my grant (“Health and Sustainability: Australia in a global context”). Although flights were not paid by WHO the flight carbon offsets were – this was the first carbon-neutral conference in WHO history.

The weather in Geneva was lovely. The Chernobyl and atomic energy protestors (who have maintained a presence just outside the WHO precinct for decades) are still there, but more visible as roadworks have temporarily closed the normal bus-stop, so we all walked nearer to them.

Inside we were greeted by a colourful sign, drawn by children, about climate change and health. More people than originally expected had arrived – 360, including several health and environment ministers (though none, as far as I could tell, from powerful countries). Australia sent a diplomat from the Geneva office who told me she found the proceedings unusually pleasant as there was so little overt politics. That may be so but there was still plenty of politics on display, e.g. ultra-deference to some, and the barely visible line that separates what can be said from what cannot be said.

The great German philosopher J├╝rgen Habermas has described “critical-emancipatory” knowledge, characterised in a recent article in Nature Climate Change by Noel Castree et al as “geared to challenging the status quo and creating a world predicated on new (or existing yet currently unrealized) ideals”. In some ways, the conference reflected this; in other ways, it seems to have reinforced old habits. Many delegates called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies, for technological leapfrogging, and for a fairer world. But I was less convinced of sufficient appreciation of global inequalities, of limits to growth, and of more radical steps such as carbon disinvestment (recently endorsed by Human Rights campaigner Mary Robinson) and civil disobedience. There were also some “no go” areas, including how climate change might aggravate the risk of large-scale conflict, migration and famine. As usual, the development-hindering role of rapid population growth was off the table.

There was also a noticeable tendency, especially by the government delegates, of over-attribution. For example, climate change may well make dengue fever outbreaks harder to control, but it is not the exclusive factor.

Some big names in global public health attended, including some not well known for their work in this area, such as Professor Ilona Kickbusch.

The opening sessions were so crowded that the overflow filled two peripheral halls. Ours had a slightly party atmosphere, as, at least at the beginning, the audio-visual system let us down. Livestream watchers in the outback may have had a better connection. But I did hear some – including by WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, Prince Charles and World Bank President – and public health expert – Jim Kim (the latter two by video-link). But we missed hearing Christine Figueres, of the UNFCCC.

Later the crowd thinned, on day two we were able to sit upstairs in the main hall, and for the very final session there was space downstairs for almost all. Downstairs, one certainly felt more a part of the main event than an observer.

This was the most hierarchical and diplomatic of the handful of WHO meetings that I have attended; that is because it had an unusually large number of people, and thus an unusually large number of politicians, diplomats and civil society representatives, including of medical student groups.

Naturally, at a UN-affiliated meeting, these dignitaries come first. But there were also brief summaries of the science, discussion about the conference statement, and a focus on sub-issues such as nutrition, health promotion and strengthening health resilience.

The final day included a session on the economics of climate change, presented by Jeremy Oppenheim, program director for the New Climate Economy project.

There is a detailed summary on the web – including nine pages of the WHO Bulletin. The background paper Strengthening Health Resilience to Climate Change repeated the three tier classification of health effects in the IPCC health chapter. My book uses a somewhat similar three way structure (not credited by the IPCC), and I’m very much hoping that classification will be cited in the next version of this paper.

I wish I believed more in the carbon offset industry, I would have less carbon guilt; even so, I’m glad I attended. It might even be seen as an historic event, one day. On the whole, WHO deserves great credit for its leadership in this vital area.

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