For the first time at a major United Nations climate conference, human health is emerging as a leading issue, a reframing that brings climate change’s far-reaching and long-lasting effects to the forefront.
Although health has been addressed at conferences going back to the first U.N. environmental summit in 1992, never before has it held such a central role. The 2015 Paris accord, the global agreement among nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, was billed foremost as a historic environmental moment.
However, “the Paris Agreement is not an environmental treaty,” said Dr. Maria Neira, the director of the World Health Organization’s department on environment, climate change and health. “It is a basic public health treaty.”
There is a growing body of research showing that climate change is contributing to a wide range of health risks around the world. It is exacerbating heat waves, intensifying wildfires, heightening flood risks and worsening droughts. These are, in turn, increasing heat-related mortality, pregnancy complications and cardiovascular disease. And as with many things climate-related, the risks and harms are particularly severe in places that are the least able to respond.