After climate summit, experts discuss key takeaways, next steps

COP26 experts
Clockwise from top left: Stephanie Abrams, Renee Salas, Jeff Nesbit, Muhammad Pate

November 30, 2021 – A panel of leaders in the fight against climate change discussed key outcomes from the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, known as COP26—as well as the path forward—at a virtual forum on November 18.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health event focused on the health impacts of climate change. Panelists included Renee Salas, Yerby Fellow at the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE), and Muhammad Pate, Julio Frenk Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership, both from Harvard Chan School, as well as Jeff Nesbit, executive director of the nonprofit Climate Nexus. The panel was introduced by actor and climate activist Eric Christian Olsen as part of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE’s “Reel Science” series, which connects scientists and celebrities for conversations about climate and health. The Weather Channel’s Stephanie Abrams moderated.

“The health community is a sleeping giant, and we are waking up,” said Salas. “Our mission is to improve the health of patients, accelerate equity, and prevent harm. So, we as a healthcare system cannot be contributing to this vicious cycle that’s producing more greenhouse gases that are driving climate change and causing health issues.” Salas cited asthma as an example of the kind of health problem that is exacerbated by climate change, due to higher pollen counts and air pollution. While health professionals are “pulling patients out one at a time from the river,” she continued, they must increasingly focus on upstream causes, “and that’s where we find the burning of fossil fuels.”

On a positive note, Salas spoke of the growing awareness of links between climate and health. COP26 featured a day-long conference on the issue, sponsored by the World Health Organization. She noted that 14 countries have signed a pledge to set target dates between 2030 and 2050 for net zero carbon emissions from the health care industry, which accounts for 8.5% of all emissions in the U.S. In the past year, she added, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service has cut emissions by over 1,200 kilotons of carbon, “which is the equivalent to 1.7 million flights between London and New York.”

Pate, the former minister of health in Nigeria, focused his remarks on the need for global equity when it comes to climate-driven health issues, which disproportionately affect poorer countries despite the fact that richer nations produce the vast majority of carbon emissions. “The fundamental injustices in the global system have to be fully addressed in terms of who emits and also who bears the brunt,” Pate said. “The biggest emitters are not paying the price.” Pate pointed to climate-induced drought and flooding as issues that can disrupt global supplies of food and water, leading to food insecurity and malnutrition.

At the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen in 2009, rich countries pledged that, by 2020, they’d contribute $100 billion a year in financing to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change, but they have failed to fully meet that goal. Not only should rich countries make good on that promise, Pate said, but they should also provide the financing in grants rather than loans. “[Poorer] countries themselves then have to take necessary actions in terms of their policies … so that we emerge out of this crisis and survive together as a human civilization,” he said.

Michael Blanding