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A COP23 Highlight Reel

Four ECRG members attended COP23 in Bonn, Germany, in November 2017. Here are three highlights of Erin McPhail's experience.

WHO Global Climate and Health Summit

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) fifth Global Climate and Health Summit took place on 11th of November 2017.  As an attendee at the summit, I was privileged to witness a number of inspiring and influential speakers, including the WHO Associate Director General, Joy St John, WHO Director of Public Health and the Environment, Dr Maria Neira, and Lancet Countdown Director, Dr Nick Watts, just to name a few. Through a series of engaging and thought-provoking plenary presentations and group discussions, attendees were educated on the social, economic and environmental impacts of climate change on human health and the benefits of a more climate conscious health care industry urgently needed to meet the below 1.5°C Paris Agreement target.

A number of important global issues were brought to attention at the Summit, including the current global health crisis of air pollution. Air pollution is the single greatest threat to human health today and takes the lives of more than 6 million people each year, with the very young, very old and those living in extreme poverty being most vulnerable. Another highlight was the discussions around the impact of the health care industry on climate change with the health sector contributing 5% of all total global greenhouse gas emissions.

A standout presentation at the Summit was by emergency physician and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment Board President-elect, Dr Courtney Howard. Dr Howard works in Yellowknife, Canada, at a hospital with a vast patient outreach to the Northwest and Nunavut territories. These regions are already experiencing temperatures three degrees warmer than it was in the 1940’s and twice the 1.5 degree limit outlined in the Paris Agreement. These seemingly small temperature increases have tremendous impacts in these regions, where small temperature changes are the difference between solid and liquid water. Dr Howard discussed a range of direct and indirect impacts of climate change and rising temperatures on local and Indigenous people in this region.  Topics covered included the melting of roads used to transport vital winter supplies such as food and medicine, ecological and socio-economic impacts of changing migration patterns and population numbers of caribou, the correlation between climate change, changing landscapes and deteriorating mental health, as well as physiological impacts and increased disease prevalence caused by the burning of coal in her local region. Dr Howard gave an honest and engaging presentation highlighting the lessons she has learned through her successes and failures, and her hopes for transforming the education of health professionals as we move towards a more climate conscious future. Dr Howard’s unwavering persistence and significant local and national progress in climate and health public awareness over the past decade in the face of great opposition was truly inspirational.

Presentations and group discussions at the Summit on the dual benefits of tackling climate change and improving health were insightful, inspiring and invaluable to my knowledge base and I look forward to taking this awareness and motivation forward into my future studies.

Above: WHO Associate Director General, Dr Joy St. John, welcoming attendees of the WHO Climate and Health Summit 2017. (Photo taken from, 2017)

COP23 High Level Presidency Event: Health Actions for the Implementation of the Paris Agreement

Health Actions for the Implementation of the Paris Agreement was the first High Level Presidency Event held at COP23 on Sunday 12th of November and is the first COP high level event of its kind aimed specifically at addressing the human health impacts of climate change. The objective of this event was to discuss initiatives and promote actions to protect human health from the impacts of climate change through adaptation and mitigation strategies. This ground-breaking event brought together a number of highly distinguished speakers from the health, environment and development communities, including the COP23 President and Prime Minister of the Republic of Fiji, H.E. Frank Bainimarama, WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Patricia Espinosa, and R20 Founding Chair and former Governor of California, Hon Arnold Schwarzenegger, and others. Having the opportunity to witness these incredibly inspiring leaders speak on these critical issues was an absolute privilege.

There were many highlights of this event, but most notably was the speech by the Hon. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Evidently, a gifted storyteller and compelling speaker, Schwarzenegger spoke about the tremendous environmental work undertaken by his government between 2006 and 2010 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through public incentives and legislative change. The historic efforts by the State of California to ‘ban climate change’ had never been seen by any government before. In 2010, however, the Governor was approaching his next election and was under immense pressure from fossil fuel companies to relax environmental laws in the state and increase fossil fuel investment. The Governor denied these requests and subsequently faced insurmountable opposition from these companies. The multimillion dollar scare-tactic campaign by the fossil fuel companies sent a message to the public that the environmental movement would lead to job loss and economic downturn, and it worked. Just one month before the election, polling results showed Schwarzenegger’s government was well behind. The Governor’s messages of rising sea levels, climate change and national security had failed to deliver the public’s majority vote. Knowing a final attempt at a new campaign direction was essential, the Government was approached by the American Lung Association who provided a short television advertisement to deliver a very simple message from health professionals to the general public – air pollution is killing us. Just one week later, the polls started to turn. Subsequently, the Government partnered with the Academy of Paediatrics and created another short television advertisement to deliver a simple message – air pollution is making our children sick. On November 2nd, the state majority voted in favour of Governor Schwarzenegger’s reduced emissions policies and, in the words of the Governor at COP23, “the people of California overwhelmingly chose a clean energy future and they said ‘hasta la vista’ to the coal companies!”

The co benefits of combating climate change and improving public health were discussed widely at COP23, but to hear the former Governor of California tell this story first hand was an incredible experience and gave me great hope and tremendous motivation for this mammoth task of tackling climate change.

Above: R20 Founding Chair and former Governor of California, Hon. Arnold Schwarzenegger  speaking at the first High-Level Presidency Event at COP23

The Climate Crisis and its Solutions: Presented by Al Gore

On the 10th of November, the energy and excitement in the COP23 Bonn zone meeting room was palpable as the crowd eagerly awaited the arrival of former US Vice President, Al Gore. The presentation began with Gore proposing three vital questions that have to be asked about the climate crisis. Firstly, do we really have to change? Gore spoke of the immense benefits of the fossil fuel industry on creating the world we live in today, reducing poverty and raising living standards. Today, the world continues to rely on fossil fuels for 80% of all our energy use, despite having the ability to achieve global scale renewable energy use and combat climate change. Unsurprisingly, Gore’s answer was yes - change is crucial. Secondly, can we change? Gore demonstrated how change is possible by presenting examples and statistics of continents, countries and communities using renewable technology and emissions reduction systems, such as Denmark’s commitment to wind energy and the fossil fuel vehicle phase out commitment by a number of European countries. Thirdly, will we change? Gore thinks we can, and also believes that this question needs be asked each year at every COP, especially at the first five-year review of the Paris Agreement in 2023.

The burning of fossil fuels is the principal cause of climate change - releasing 110 million tonnes of emissions into space every single day, trapping heat and raising temperatures around the world. Gore spoke of our world’s climate reality, where the cumulative amount of man-made global warming pollution in the atmosphere now traps as much extra heat energy in the atmosphere as would be released by 400 thousand first generation atomic bombs exploding every 24 hours! These emissions are causing global temperatures to rise dramatically, with 2017 being the hottest year in a non-El Niño year ever recorded.

The former Vice President provided a concise overview of the current global climate crisis. Gore emphasized that the climate crisis is most certainly an inconvenient reality, but is a reality that must be faced immediately to ensure we do not miss our chance and reach the point of no return for the health of our Earth and its inhabitants. Gore’s presentation was one of the most exciting and highly anticipated events of the Conference and to be afforded the opportunity of attending was a thrilling, informative and inspiring experience. As a result, I have great hope that these internationally recognised climate warriors will continue this battle against climate change and am delighted that they show no indication of slowing their fight, in fact, quite the opposite.

Above: Former US Vice President, Al Gore, engaging the crowd in the Bonn Zone at COP23.

Written by Erin McPhail


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