Creating a movement

stethRenzo Guinto, medical student, environmental advocate and Bayer Young Environmental Envoy 2007, thinks the global health and environmental movements should join forces, and explains how young doctors from around the world are leading the way.

Dozens of papers from all over the world clearly lay out the impact of climate change on human health. In 2009, a commission formed by The Lancet and the University College London (UCL) called climate change ‘the biggest global health threat of the 21st century’. Infectious diseases like dengue fever and cholera are on the rise. People are affected by increases in the severity and frequency of natural disasters like typhoons in countries including the Philippines, while drought in Africa impacts food supplies.

Yet at international negotiation tables and in community-based education, little emphasis has been placed on the health impact of climate change. Rather, it is presented as an economic and political issue, or merely an environmental problem. Yet even among environmentalists, people disagree about both the science and the solutions.

Health unifies all

But what if climate change were reframed as a health issue? Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says ‘everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family’. Every member state of the United Nations is accountable to its citizens, and the failure to act on climate change is a violation of the human right to health.

The global environmental movement should focus on the health impacts of climate change. Communities may not comprehend terms such as ‘carbon emission’ or ‘cap-and-trade’, but they will understand how water and food scarcity threatens nutrition, how warming encourages malaria-bearing mosquitoes, and how flooding can lead to disease and death. With this understanding, they’re more likely to take positive action.

Creating a movement

In October 2010, the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA), a federation composed of 1.2 million medical students worldwide, launched an online petition pushing governments to put ‘health back into the climate change negotiations’. IFMSA calls for ‘full participation and consultation of the international health community in the international negotiations within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’ in the hope that the negotiations will ‘achieve a fair, ambitious and legally binding global treaty’.

With this bold act, medical students hope to encourage the World Health Organization, the World Medical Association and all other international non-governmental organizations and foundations working for health to take leadership in this new movement.

Both global health and environmental movements should make use of this momentum, pooling resources, efforts and voices to create high-impact development projects that encompass health, environment and even poverty. A global forum on environment and health, for example, would allow activists to discuss and analyse issues through the combined lens of environment and health, and arrive at a global strategy for collaborative action.

If we tackle climate change as a health issue, I am certain that the world will come to agreement for action sooner.
For more information, visit: www.environmentalgovernance.org

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This post is also available in: French, Spanish