WHO Director-General: Climate Change is the Defining Issue for Public Health in the 21st Century

by CCAC secretariat - 8 March, 2016
Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, addresses Human Rights Council on climate change

In a keynote address at the Human Rights Council panel discussion on climate change and the right to health, the World Health Organization's (WHO) Director-General, Margaret Chan, said climate change is the defining issue for public health in the 21st century. 

"Climate and weather variables affect the air people breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, and the chances that they will get infected by a disease," Dr Chan Said.

"The [health effects of climate change] are right before our eyes, well-known, measurable, scientifically documented, and daunting. The WHO estimates that, each year, more than 7 million deaths worldwide can be attributed to air pollution. Climate change is also causing tens of thousands of yearly deaths from other causes."

Pointing to numerous examples of how climate change impacts human health Dr Chan said the global change agreement, reached in Paris last December was as much a health treaty as it was an environmental treaty. She went on to say that a focus on human rights and health offers a perspective that puts people, their health, their lives, and their livelihoods, and not the cost of mitigation and adaptiation, at the centre of any discussion on climate change.

A ruined planet cannot sustain human lives in good health.
Dr Margaret Chan

Dr Chan said that poverty was one of the biggest barriers to realizing the right to health.

"We need fairness. We need justice. And we need global solidarity. All countries need to work together to cut carbon emissions. But let’s look at the reality," Dr Chan said. "The poorest households in the world are forced to rely on the most polluting energy sources just for everyday cooking and heating. Use of these energy sources, which cause heavy indoor air pollution, is associated with more than 3.5 million deaths each year."

Dr Chan called for an agenda for action that doubles as a results-based framework for accountability. To support accountable action, the WHO and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will jointly roll out climate and health profiles for individual countries that focus on the health risks and opportunities for the most vulnerable populations. They will also track compliance with the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions in terms of their impact on health.

The WHO also plans to host a second global conference on health and climate this year.

In closing Dr Chan warned that the hard-won gains for health since the start of this century can easily be swept away by the tidal wave of health threats unleased by climate change.

"A ruined planet cannot sustain human lives in good health," Dr Chan said.

The Human Rights Council panel discussion on climate change and the right to health took place on March 3, 2016, in Geneva, Switzerland

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