UN Climate Chief: 'Not Very Far' from Considering 'Climate Change as a Public Health Emergency'

August 28, 2014 - 4:25 AM

Christiana Figueres

U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres speaks to reporters in New York on September 26, 2013. (U.N. Photo/Sarah Fretwell)

(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry has called climate change “the biggest challenge of all that we face right now,” and his French counterpart has warned of climate “chaos” in 500 days, and now the U.N. climate change chief is implying that climate change can be viewed on a par with the deadly Ebola outbreak.

Christiana Figueres told a World Health Organization (WHO)-hosted event in Geneva Wednesday that “we are not very far” from the point where climate change should be declared an international public health emergency, according to her prepared remarks.

Addressing a three-day global conference on health and climate – the first of its kind – Figueres said in remarks directed at WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, “Dear Margaret, as much as [I] would like you to, I am fully aware of the fact that you have not convened the international health regulations emergency committee to consider climate change as a public health emergency of international concern.”

“However, we are not very far from this,” she added.

The committee referred to by Figueres is the expert body on whose advice the WHO three weeks ago declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to be a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC).

Under international health regulations, a PHEIC is declared in a case where “an extraordinary event” is determined to constitute a public health risk through the international spread of disease; and “to potentially require a coordinated international response.”

In her speech Figueres, who is executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) said that while it was easy to view climate change as “the equivalent of a disease” it was actually the symptom.

“The disease is something we rarely admit,” she said. “The disease is humanity’s unhealthy dependence on fossil fuels, deforestation and land use that depletes natural resources.”

“At the heart of an effective response to climate change is the challenge of taking responsibility for our actions and above all, making tough decisions to change the patterns that have been at the base of our development over the past 100 years, if we are to prevent severe worsening of health and quality of life conditions over the next 100 years.”

The U.N. says climate change is having an impact on health in numerous ways, including malnutrition due to crop failures arising from changing weather patterns; water scarcity; the spread of water-borne disease resulting from rising temperatures; and the effect of carbon emissions on rates of cancer and respiratory disease rates.

Speaking at the conference Wednesday, Chan linked climate change to the emergence of new human diseases. She said many of these originate in wild animals, whose populations, concentration and incursion into areas where humans live are impacted by climate variables.

But she cautioned against speculation that Ebola may be affected by climate.

“I am aware of speculation that climate change may influence the frequency of outbreaks of Ebola virus disease,” she said. “I must emphasize we have no evidence that this is the case.”

Paris agreement will be ‘universal and applicable to all countries’

Like a number of other events around the world, the conference in Geneva is looking ahead to the next major U.N. climate megaconference, in Paris, France in November 2015, when efforts will be made to finalize a global agreement on cutting “greenhouse gas” emissions.

Next month U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will host a summit in New York where world leaders will be urged to make commitments ahead of the Paris conference.

“This agreement will be universal and applicable to all countries,” Figueres said in Geneva. “It will address current and future emissions. If strong enough, it will prevent the worst and chart a course toward a world with clean air and water, abundant natural resources and happy, healthy populations, all the requirements for positive growth.”

“Seen in this light,” she added, “the climate agreement is actually a public health agreement.”

This week the administration has come under fire over claims that President Obama is working on reaching an agreement in Paris in a way that will enable him to sidestep Senate ratification, which is constitutionally required for international treaties.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday called a New York Times report on the issue “completely speculative.”

“Our goal, of course, is to negotiate a successful and effective global climate change agreement that can help address this pressing challenge, but anything that is eventually negotiated and that should go to the Senate will go to the Senate,” she said.

At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest said, “Because that agreement is not written, it’s not yet clear exactly what sort of role Congress would be required to play.”

It remained to be seen whether the agreement would be a “political agreement” or be one that would “require congressional approval in terms of acceding to a treaty,” he said.

Earnest stressed that Obama has identified climate change as a priority issue, saying he had taken steps to address it at home and “hasn’t been shy about trying to lead on the international stage as well.”