Climate Change: A health hazard?

Pakistan 2010 Floods (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

In November 2011, a group of ministers and senior representatives of governments from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Pacific met in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to discuss the threat of climate change and the growing vulnerability of countries to the prospect of global warming. The Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki Moon, was also present. The conclusion of the Climate Vulnerable Forum Dhaka Ministerial Meeting was to call for more concerted action to help countries adapt to the impact of climate change and take steps to mitigate its impact by creating carbon sinks, disseminating environmentally sound technologies and establishing a balance in the energy mix by focusing on renewable and alternative energy.

The emphasis the Dhaka ministerial meeting placed on limiting global warming, in this case to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre industrial levels and progressively reducing greenhouse gas emissions, is symptomatic of the challenges facing the response to climate change. For while reducing greenhouse gas emissions will remain an essential goal to achieve, this will be difficult in an era of economic crisis and the felt need by countries to stimulate new industries and employment at the cost of greenhouse gas emissions.

As we move further into what is already a serious situation, it would be perhaps more important to address the fact that climate change is displacing millions of people and is expected to uproot and forcibly move some 250 million people in the coming years. At a time when countries everywhere are raising barriers to immigration and making life more difficult for refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrant workers of all kinds, the prospect of up to 250 million people moving in search of human security portends massive social, economic, political and health challenges. This is where we should be placing our attention and finding ways of preparing for what may be involved.

Accommodating displaced people will constitute, if it does not already do so, a massive challenge in terms of availability of land, of housing, of sound water and sanitation, social and health services. At ICMHD we believe that a large proportion of the people who will be displaced will move towards large towns and cities either within their own countries or in neighboring ones. Many of these towns and cities are already overwhelmed. Unplanned and poorly coordinated rural urban migration has outpaced the capacity of many of them to absorb and provide the conditions needed for healthy life. The vastly overcrowded shantytowns and slums that now characterize many cities in developing countries are not only making the protection of health difficult, but are actually producing the conditions that facilitate disease.

ICMHD believes that far more attention should be given to this part of the climate change challenge than it has received to date. This is where meaningful action is probably possible in a shorter time frame and could help avert a major global disaster.

By Manuel Carballo

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