Health professionals from Southeast Asia stressed that health should be at the core of climate change discussions as the warming of the planet poses imminent and severe threats to human well-being.

Beyond its widely-documented ecological and environmental impacts, climate change carries far-reaching consequences for human health, with the World Health Organization calling it the “single biggest threat facing humanity.”

The climate crisis drives extreme weather events such as cyclones and intense heat waves that take lives, fuel the spread of infectious and food-, water- and vector-borne diseases. Climate change-induced disasters and the uncertainty surrounding the future of the planet also exacerbate mental health issues.

“We really need to push this very, very important fact that you cannot separate our human health from the health of the planet, and we need each of these to be in good health. So it’s all interlinked,” Jemilah Mahmood, executive director of the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health in Malaysia, said at the Asia-Pacific Climate Week in Johor Bahru.

Renzo Guinto, chief planetary health scientist of the Sunway Centre for Planetary health, emphasized that the adverse health effects linked to climate change disproportionately impact the most vulnerable populations such as women and children.

“This is a health sector issue that cannot be ignored anymore,” Guinto, who also serves as the director of the planetary and global health program of St. Luke’s Medical Center, said in a forum organized by Save the Children Philippines last week.

‘Health day’ 

A “health day” will be held at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai on December 3—the first-of-its kind in climate negotiations.

Guinto said this signals that world leaders now recognize that “we need a healthy planet so we can have healthy people.”

In an open letter, health professionals urged the COP28 presidency and the world leaders gathering in the Gulf state to commit to an accelerated phase-out of fossil fuels and a just and equitable clean energy transition “as the decisive path to health for all.”

They also called on wealthy economies, development finance institutions and the private sector to increase and fulfill their commitments to drive investments in clean energy, clean air and economic development for communities most harmed by the climate crisis.

“Without ambitious climate action, the burden on healthcare systems and healthcare workers will be insurmountable. Health gains made in recent decades will be in vain and we will see the harmful impacts of climate change ruin our chances for a safe, equitable and just future,” read the letter of medical professionals and organizations, including St. Luke’s Medical Center and St. Paul’s Hospital of Iloilo Inc.

Debates over the phasing out of planet-warming fossil fuels are expected to take center stage in the climate negotiations in the petrostate later this month.

“We have to make sure that health remains central to not just COP28, but COP29, COP30, COP50, whatever. It has to be central,” Mahmood said.

Saving the future generation

Climate scientists have said that urgent and ambitious action to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is needed to secure a liveable future for all.

However, the current greenhouse gas-cutting pledges of countries put Earth on track to warm up to a catastrophic 2.9 degrees Celsius this century, the United Nations Environmental Programme warned.

Mahmood called on everyone, not only health professionals, to speak up about the impacts of climate change on health and advocate for an end to the world’s addiction to fossil fuels.

Guinto emphasized that a healthy planet is essential for the well-being of “not the only ones living today, but those who are yet to be born in the years and decades to come.”

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