Mary Robinson says climate crisis also a health emergency

Forum hears women and girls at risk because of the threat of gender-based violence

As the climate crisis takes its grip on the world, it is coinciding with a health crisis where women and girls are most vulnerable, chairwoman of the Elders Mary Robinson has said.

The world needed to sit up and acknowledge "the climate crisis is a health crisis", she said, but welcomed the move by Cop26 to put the issue centre stage.

Women and girls were more at risk than others particularly because of the threat of gender-based violence, This was one of a range of climate injustices which threaten people in climate-vulnerable developing countries most, Mrs Robinson told the Global Conference on Health and Climate Change.

This was evident in the indirect consequences of having to travel further for food, water and fuel in the form of firewood, where they were at risk of being raped or physically assaulted, she said.


In addition, depression and mental health problems due to climate disruption, including trauma after climate disasters, was taking a huge toll on people.

Mrs Robinson said these were a consequence of fast-moving extreme weather events and slower effects such as sea-level rise. She cited the suffering of people of the Caribbean and small island states of the south Pacific because they see their homes disappearing. “They know they have no future if global temperatures cannot be kept to within 1.5 degrees.”

The recent recognition by the UN Human Rights Council that "having a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is indeed a human right", and acknowledging the human rights impacts of climate change, was helpful in linking climate and health, and in applying "a climate justice approach".

This would help judges to reach decisions in cases brought against governments or polluting fossil fuel companies, said Mrs Robinson, a former UN high commissioner for human rights.

Asked about difficulties in raising climate justice issues, she underlined the need to highlight peoples’ experiences and to have genuine inclusivity.

Cop26 was not an inclusive cop as promised; there was less inclusiveness because of Covid, she added, while tuning in remotely was difficult, which “is a great tragedy”.

Improving participation of women since 2009 coincided with the emergence of leaders on climate and gender, she said. Women became heads of delegations and brought into the room “grassroots women; indigenous women; young women” who in turn become climate action champions. “Their voices made a huge difference,” she believed.

While delegates often spent too much time fighting over words in texts, the more important reality was highlighted by Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate; "you cannot adapt to extinction".

Prof Andy Haines of London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine agreed with Mrs Robinson that there were glaring research gaps on health impacts arising from the climate crisis.

More than 35 per cent of heat-related deaths between 1991 and 2018 in 732 sites in 43 countries can be attributed to climate change but global data is incomplete, he confirmed. By the second half of this century, one billion people could be living in locations where physical labour is hazardous, even in the shade.

Research on pregnant women in Gambia, he pointed out, highlighted the risk from exposure to extreme temperatures for them and their babies, where they were often working out in intolerable conditions. This suggested that "we are close to the limits of adaptation in these parts of the world", Prof Haines believed.

Aside from the release of large amounts of methane, he highlighted the considerable health risks from melting permafrost in the Arctic arising from the release of viruses and bacteria that have survived for many hundreds of years.

Another key issue governments needed to face up to in trying to address climate disruption was the fact that healthcare systems were significant carbon emitters, accounting for up to 10 per cent of emissions in some countries, he noted.

While the climate crisis was responsible for increasing mental health problems and eco anxiety levels, using nature to increase resilience such as in decarbonising cities could bring positive health returns, he believed.

Cultural diversity

Moreover, deploying nature-based solutions to the climate crisis “benefits society in a fair and equitable way”, promotes broader participation while maintaining biological and cultural diversity.

Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia and chairwoman of Wellcome Trust said: "We are used to talking about climate as an environmental challenge, an economic challenge, an equity challenge. But it is also one of the most urgent health challenges facing us all today."

The resulting impacts can be addressed, but only through concerted, global action, she added. “If we can forge an inclusive climate and health movement that links charities, researchers and decision makers across the world, we will be able to create a healthy sustainable future, for generations to come.”

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation wished to highlight the "unprecedented threat that climate change poses to human health" and to raise the collective voice of health professionals in Glasgow and around the world.

"Health must become the beating heart of climate action," said Dr Jeni Miller, director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance. "Political leaders must prioritise health and social equity, emission reduction and impact mitigation over politics, profit and unproven technological fixes. The decisions made during Cop26 will define the health and wellbeing of people all over the world for decades to come".

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times