ICN joins global health community’s call for climate action ahead of COP26 to avert “biggest health threat facing humanity”

11 October 2021

PR 51

Photo credit: african.business

ICN endorses WHO report that calls for ambitious climate commitments as the only path to long-term recovery from pandemic

ICN calls on the governments of the world to take immediate action to avert a climate crisis that will have devastating effects on the health of people everywhere.

The call comes ahead of the UN climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow, UK as more than 300 organisations representing at least 45 million nurses, doctors and health professionals worldwide signed an open letter to the 197 government leaders and national delegations. The letter warns that the climate crisis is the single biggest health threat facing humanity and calls on world leaders to deliver on climate action.

The letter’s publication coincides with the release today of a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO), which argues that countries can only ensure a long-term recovery from the pandemic by implementing ambitious climate commitments. The report delivers ten high-level recommendations, backed up by action points, resources and case studies, including the need to place health and social justice at the heart of the UN climate talks (see below for full list).

The letter states: “Wherever we deliver care, in our hospitals, clinics and communities around the world, we are already responding to the health harms caused by climate change. Those people and nations who have benefited most from the activities that caused the climate crisis, especially fossil fuel extraction and use, have a great responsibility to do everything possible to help those who are now most at risk.

ICN Chief Executive Officer Howard Catton said: “Whether it is the pandemic or the effects of climate change, people’s health is suffering severe consequences. Nurses are witnessing this unfolding global crisis and the suffering it is causing, and they are no longer willing to stay silent about it. The pandemic has created so much illness and death, but its effects will be dwarfed by those of climate change unless action is taken now.

‘Every day, nurses are witnessing and dealing with the profound effects the climate crisis is having on human health and wellbeing. They are caring for people with bronchitis and worsening asthma from air pollution and wildfires. They are in the community caring for older people and people experiencing homelessness who have heat exhaustion and heat stroke from more frequent and intense heat waves. Nurses are seeing an increase in deaths in children under five from diarrheal disease because they do not have safe water sources.

‘The world is already facing a global emergency in mental health, and climate change will continue to worsen this as its impacts are causing post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, and worsening existing mental health conditions. Eco-anxiety is causing depression, anxiety and mental distress.

‘Disadvantaged and marginalised groups will be impacted first and the most. The irony is that they are not the ones to contribute to climate change. Effective public health responses have co-benefits for planetary health and can address climate change impacts - encourage a public health approach. Pandemic and climate change are compounding each other hence why both must be tackled. Public health strategies will help prepare for and respond to both climate-related disasters and health emergencies like epidemics and pandemics.”

Both the letter and the report argue that health and equity must be at the centre of climate change response; while the letter calls for action, the report provides the blueprint for delivering climate action that will protect the health of people around the world.

The letter calls on all governments to update their national climate commitments under the Paris Agreement, in line with their fair share of limiting warming to 1.5°C. A recent report by UN Climate Change (UNFCCC) found that countries’ collective climate commitments are falling far short of this goal, and would lead to a global temperature rise of at least 2.7°C by the end of the century.

The 45 million health professionals represented in the letter are demanding a rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels; for high income countries to provide the promised transfer of climate funds; for investments in resilient and low carbon health systems; and for pandemic recovery investments to support climate action and reduce social and health inequities.

The signatories of the open letter represent every region of the world, and include the International Council of Nurses, the World Medical Association, the International Federation of Medical Students Associations, the International Confederation of Midwives, and the International Paediatrics Association. See full list of signatories.

Download the press release here