Christiana Figueres, who piloted the Paris Agreement on Climate Change through years of negotiations to success in December 2015, will become chair of The Lancet Countdown’s high-level advisory board, the British medical publication announced recently. The Countdown project was established in November 2016 to monitor the effects of climate change on health and track progress in meeting the global threats that the issue poses.
“First, we need bold leadership and a strong voice, communication to patients and advocating to governments that climate change is fundamentally a public health issue,” the Lancet news release said. “Much as she did with the Paris Agreement, Christiana Figueres will help guide The Lancet Countdown to maximize its impact and deliver on the promise of the Paris Agreement.”
In an occasional series of reports on new data and research on topics of interest to the UN, this Take a Look focuses on the status of global work on collecting information and formulating policies since the climate agreement was adopted.
Figueres is a diplomat from Costa Rica with decades of experience in international affairs who had been a candidate for the position of United Nations secretary-general in 2016. She was executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2009 until the signing of the agreement in April 2016.
Under President Obama, the United States was among 198 nations that signed and pledged cooperation with the agreement. Donald Trump reversed that decision on June 1, 2017, announcing American withdrawal from the accord, though the process will take several years at best.
Figueres has involved herself in numerous climate-related campaigns. She convened an initiative, Mission 2020, focused on moving rapidly on cutting greenhouse gases to protect the most vulnerable people and places in the short term. She is also vice chairwoman of the Global Covenant of Mayors and a member of the Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health, among other positions.
In the US, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is a government agency based in North Carolina that could face potentially large budget cuts in the Trump 2018 spending plan. The Institute, a component of the National Institutes of Health, has done considerable research on the relationship between the environment and human health suggesting that genetic effects of environmental conditions during development early in life can lead to health consequences into old age.
The Institute has also funded independent research on topics ranging from the relationship of traffic-related high levels of air pollution and lower levels of “good” cholesterol to the effects of drought measured in hospital admissions and deaths.
The World Health Organization, based in Geneva, has amassed a wealth of data and analysis on the health and well-being effects of climate change. Its summary fact sheet includes current research findings as well as footnote references to relevant studies.
Among its key facts: from 2030 to 2050, climate change could cause about 250,000 additional global deaths annually from malnutrition, malaria diarrhea and heat stress. Developing countries with weak infrastructure will suffer the worst, WHO predicts, with children the most vulnerable victims.
“Increasingly variable rainfall patterns are likely to affect the supply of fresh water,” the WHO forecasts. “A lack of safe water can compromise hygiene and increase the risk of diarrheal disease, which kills approximately 760,000 children aged under 5, every year. In extreme cases, water scarcity leads to drought and famine.”
Floods, which carry waterborne diseases and provide breeding grounds for insects that carry numerous infections and parasites, will be more frequent, the agency predicts.
In 2015, the organization introduced a work plan to deal with the effects of climate change from a health perspective. It includes an effort to have health incorporated in the climate-change agendas of all UN agencies and the coordination of scientific evidence to develop a global research agenda. The online gateway to WHO’s research and work on climate change is here.
Separately, in 2011 the Pan American Health Organization, or PAHO, adopted a forward-looking policy on climate change. With large areas of tropical or semitropical weather, the spread of waterborne or insect-borne diseases is a big concern. “Warmer weather exacerbates the risks of strokes, heart attacks, asthma attacks, and the spread of mosquito- and tick-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue and chikungunya,” PAHO warns. “Zika is also causing serious risks to pregnant mothers and the elderly.”
The Caribbean basin in particular is located in the path of very destructive hurricanes, which weather experts fear will get stronger in coming years. A PAHO blog invites people who live in the region to contribute ideas not only for protection from storms but also for measures that deal with other problems brought about by climate change. PAHO supports a blog with suggestions of actions that island and coastal residents — from property owners to children in their schoolrooms — can take to conserve energy and save the environment.
The message to students and teachers is to be aware of even small steps (always based on science) that help, whoever and wherever you are.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.