Human cost of failing to check climate change unimaginable, says top WHO official

Without significant action, massive displacement, conflict and overwhelmed health facilities await

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The human cost of failure to check climate change will be so unimaginably enormous that top WHO official Maria Neira is reluctant to be drawn into details.

But the little she can reveal is harrowing.

“It is not just about polar bears,” Ms Neira, WHO’s deputy director for environment, climate change and health, told The National on the sidelines of the Cop27 summit in Egypt.

Already, she said, seven million people are dying each year of climate change-related causes, a number certain to grow if the rapid climate deterioration is not arrested.

“We have an emergency plan to deal with a worst-case scenario. But we don’t think we should publicise it. We don’t even want to accept that we may need it. It’s dramatic enough as it is now,” she said.

Her comments came as a series of alarming reports on the pace of climate change were released during the two-week climate conference being held in Egypt's Sharm El Sheikh.

Some of these reports said keeping the world's temperature at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2030 was possibly unattainable. Others said greenhouse gas emissions in industrialised nations were rising and fossil fuel company emissions were underreported, while they rake in huge profits.

The 1.5°C cap was agreed in Paris in 2015, but some countries see it as so detrimental to their national interest that they don’t want it mentioned at the conference, delegates says. That includes US climate envoy John Kerry.

Ms Neira said: “We expect unrest and conflict arising from the fight for food and water. We also expect massive displacement and overflowing hospitals. We don’t even want to imagine it.”

Already, some of these things are happening, albeit on a small scale.

Africa has climate refugees in the Horn of Africa region and Sudan. A third of Pakistan is under water after floods in August. Farmers in California are abandoning their land because of persistent drought. Small islands around the world, particularly in the Pacific, face a realistic threat of disappearing.

“If you accelerate the transition to renewable energy, we will be able to reduce the seven million killed every year by climate change and the resultant pollution,” said Ms Neira.

“If they work to keep the temperature below 1.5°C, we can be sure that the benefit would be enormous. If they don’t, people’s health will be at risk. We hope that Cop27 will act with the urgency that matches the magnitude of the climate crisis.

“The health argument we try to inject into the process of fighting climate change should accelerate and raise the level of ambition in the negotiations.”

Updated: November 16, 2022, 11:47 AM
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