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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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Climate and Health Take Center Stage Again in Paris

By Kimberly Thigpen Tart

John Balbus, Julie Trani, Kimberly Thigpen Tart, Maria Neira, Mark Shimamoto and Josh Glasser

U.S. delegation members in Paris included (l to r) John Balbus (NIEHS), Juli Trtanj (NOAA), Kimberly Thigpen Tart (NIEHS), Mark Shimamoto (USGCRP), and Joshua Glasser (State Dept.).  Third from right is Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health (PHE).
(Photo courtesy of NIEHS)

In early July, Paris once again played host to a gathering focused on global climate change. More than 300 scientists, policy makers, communicators, government leaders, and funders gathered at the Second Global Conference on Health and Climate, hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the French government. NIEHS staff traveled to Paris as part of the U.S. delegation to join other participants in strategizing ways to put health at the center of global efforts on climate change.

The theme of the conference, “Building Healthier Societies through Implementation of the Paris Agreement,” reflected the goal to continue the momentum of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, also known as COP21.

An opening plenary of high-level international representatives showcased perspectives on why the Paris Agreement is good for public health with talks from France’s Minister of Environment, Energy, and Sea and President of COP 21, Ségolène Royal; Morocco’s Minister of Environment and incoming President of COP22, Hakima El Haite; Richard Kinley, the Deputy Executive Secretary of the Climate Change Secretariat; and Her Royal Highness Queen Letizia of Spain. A plenary on the second morning explored what types of advances in policy, evidence, and financial and technical support are needed to build on the success of the Paris Agreement and ensure health resilience to climate change.

John Balbus, M.D., NIEHS senior advisor for public health, was among the convening leaders of the first Global Conference on Health and Climate in August 2014 and represented the U.S. government as part of the Second Global Conference on Health and Climate delegation. He provides leadership to the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s (USGCRP) Interagency Cross Cutting Group on Climate and Human Health and to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and NIEHS efforts, including work with the health sector through the Sustainable and Climate Resilient Healthcare Facilities Initiative. During his talk in the session on the development of a framework on climate and health resilience, Balbus issued a call for further research to provide the fundamental science needed to inform this effort.

Balbus was joined on the delegation by Kimberly Thigpen Tart, J.D., a program analyst in the NIEHS Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation, as well as colleagues from the Department of State, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the USGCRP, with close consultation of the HHS Office of Global Affairs and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Thigpen Tart, a leader on development of the recently issued USGCRP climate and health assessment, brought to the meeting a knowledge of the current state of the science on health impacts of climate change, particularly for vulnerable populations, and experience in climate and health communications.

At the meeting, attendees considered draft action agendas prepared by WHO in a number of relevant areas, including special challenges to large cities; priorities for evidence, decision-support tools, and capacity development; use of legal, communications, and economic strategies to address household air pollution; improving access to international climate finance for health; and engaging the health sector to communicate climate risks and opportunities. Meeting participants were asked to provide comments and feedback on the priorities laid out in the draft action agendas. While providing guidance and prioritizing efforts, the action agendas will also help to inform the upcoming U.N. Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development (Habitat III) to be held in October in Ecuador, as well as a health platform planned for integration into the global climate action agenda for COP22, scheduled to take place in Marrakech in November.

The Climate and Health Conference also offered an important opportunity to further the goals of the WHO-NIEHS Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences — which includes climate change as a focus area — through participation in side meetings with delegates from the Pan American Health Organization, the World Meteorological Association, India’s National Centre for Disease Control, global NGOs, WHO offices, and schools of medicine and public health. Building relationships across such organizations is key to furthering the NIEHS Collaborating Centre goals in climate and health, including developing a network of collaborating centers working in this area, partnering with WHO and in-country government and private organizations to build global capacity, and developing messages and framing of climate change and health communications to engage the world’s attention on climate change and health. At the conference, Maria Neira, director of the WHO Department of Public Health, Environment, and Social Determinants of Health and NIEHS’s Collaborating Centre partner, framed the challenge in this way: "How can we transform climate change from a threat to an opportunity to improve global health?”