Health at the mercy of fossil fuel industry, putting millions at risk

A recent international report reveals that extreme climate events have caused catastrophes all over the world and placed more pressure on health services. Funding to support adaptation to the effects of climate change is still insufficient.
A recent international report reveals that extreme climate events have caused catastrophes all over the world and placed more pressure on health services. Funding to support adaptation to the effects of climate change is still insufficient.

Last August, Sakina Bibi was living in her home in Dadu district, Sindh province, Pakistan, when suddenly water deluged her house as floods submerged and swallowed her town. Sakina panicked, and despite her pregnant belly, quickly held her two-year-old daughter by the hand along with her husband and rushed out of the house to save their lives. Sakina and her family joined dozens of others in camps for people displaced from Dadu district. She didn’t know which she should mourn more – her  submerged house and destroyed life or her quickly approaching due date in the absence of health services and trained doctors, she told Scientific American magazine.

Sakina is one among thousands whose health was affected by climate events hitting Pakistan in 2022. Another is Sharjeel Baloch, who lives in Balochistan’s Jhal Magsi district, whose house was flooded after torrential rains lasted a week in September 2022.

Shortly after the floods, “climate-sensitive infectious disease” such as malaria and cholera started spreading. A week after the flood, Sharjeel lost his eldest son, Ali, to malaria after he was unable to access medical services due to the collapse of health facilities. By the end of last September, he lost his youngest son Samiullah to malaria as well.

According to the UN, 1,700 people died due to devastating floods sweeping through a third of Pakistan in 2022. As of writing this report, millions of people remain in dire need of humanitarian aid, including 130,000 pregnant women.

A report by The Lancet Medical Journal, last October 25th, concluded that extreme climate events that took place during 2022 caused devastation across every continent, adding further pressure to health services. Health adaptation-related funding is still insufficient, the report pointed out.

The report, which analysed 103 countries, monitored that climate changes affecting crops consequently affected supply chains, increasing socioeconomic pressures. Compared to 1981 and 2010, this impact on the food supply chain led to 98 million more people to report severe food insecurity in 2020. The report also indicated that heat-related mortality for people older than 65 years increased by approximately 68% between 2017 and 2021, compared to the period between 2000 and 2004. This period also saw an increase in spread of infectious diseases like malaria and dengue in some areas.

Dr Marina Romanello, the lead author of the report, told Scientific American that they used several data resources for their report, some from UN studies, some from university research centres, and many other institutions.

She added that low-income countries had fewer capabilities to deal with the health effects of the climate change crisis, therefore they were the most vulnerable. However, she added that no country in the world could escape climate change related health effects.

“Climate change affects health in many ways, either through the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, or through climate-sensitive infectious diseases. It also has psychological effects on people. That’s why during COP27, we need to give priority to responding to the health crises caused by climate change, shifting  to renewable energy, and stopping fossil fuel financing. At the same time, [we need to] support families suffering from the effects of climate change and health sectors in different countries which are already grappling with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Romanello.

Extreme weather events during 2021 and 2022 caused varying forms of devastation across every continent, increasing pressure on health services already grappling with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Floods in Australia, Brazil, China, Western Europe, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa and South Sudan lead to the deaths of thousands and displacement of hundreds of thousands. It also caused economic losses worth billions of dollars. Forest fires caused multiple forms of destruction in Canada, United States, Greece, Algeria, Italy, Spain and Turkey, and record high temperatures were witnessed in Australia, Canada, India, Italy, Oman, Turkey, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom.

In an interview with Scientific American, Dr Jeni Miller, Executive Director of Global Climate and Health Alliance, an entity that didn’t participate in the report, commented, “this report reveals that this crisis resulting from fossil fuel burning exacerbates the effects of Covid-19 pandemic, multiplying current global economic challenges, and leaving devastating effects on people’s health all over the world.”

Dr Miller added that developing countries are affected by climate change the most as the crisis also causes residents’ living status to deteriorate and suffer with low-income. For instance, high temperatures and heat stress during heat waves reduce worker’s productivity and hinder work completion, cutting down the income affecting labourers’ production rates . This in turn can lead to exacerbating food insecurity. “These effects manifest more in developing countries, as many labourers work in open areas subjected to heat and pollution, in addition to other risks the population might face like hunger and poor health care with the presence of fragile health systems,” said Dr Miller.

Economic losses caused by climate-related extreme events add further pressure on families and economies already grappling with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to rising living costs and energy prices. Together, this undermines the social and economic determinants on which good health depends. Heat waves resulted in losing 470 billion potential working hours globally in 2021, with potential income losses equivalent to 5.6% of Gross Domestic Product, as workers are most vulnerable to the effects of financial volatility. Meanwhile, extreme weather events caused $253 billion in damages in 2021, particularly in countries with a low human development index where almost none of those losses are insured.

This prompted Dr Miller to assert that governments in COP 27 must re-commit to the phase-out and complete elimination of fossil fuels, so as to end catastrophic global warming and the devastation it causes to people around the world. Whereas high-income countries must provide developing countries with the necessary financial and technical support and equitable access to clean energy. She added, “the report concludes that low-income countries cannot catch up on the clean energy transition path. At the same time, fossil fuel companies are taking advantage of the current situation making record profits, while developing countries need financial support to improve their resilience to climate change and respond to the impacts they are already suffering from.”

Furthermore, Dr Miller said that emitting countries have to establish a clear process to fund “losses and damages” caused by them in developing countries, as well as meeting the long-awaited global climate financing goal of $100 billion. They must also make up for the shortfall in what was delivered between 2020 and 2021, dedicating half of this funding to adapt to the climate.

“COP27 participants must integrate health measures into the global adaptation target. This is clear and immediate climate action that governments can take to protect people’s health and well-being,” commented Dr Miller.

Baba Wali Obayago, one of the officials responsible for “End Fossil Fuel Finance” campaign, which participated in COP 27  said in a study conducted last year, the United Nations Environment Programme found that every dollar that emitting countries pledge to give to developing countries to address climate change is met by four dollars spent on supporting fossil fuels, which is considered the main cause behind the climate crisis and all health effects associated with it. “I live in Nigeria, and because of fossil fuel financing and climate changes, hunger spreads with catastrophic effects.The only solution is to end using fossil fuel, it kills people and destroys their lives in the most poverty-stricken societies,” he added, in conversation with Scientific American

This story was originally published in Scientific American- Arabic edition, on 29 November 2022

Hadeer El-hadary
Hadeer El-hadary is a freelance Egyptian journalist. She’s written for Egyptian and Arab websites such as Scientific American, Vice Arabia, and Shorouk News. Her work focuses on the topics of environment, climate change, science, health and women’s rights. She’s won an award from the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate for an environmental story about converting date palm seeds into fuel and other products, and another award from Plan International organization and the Ministry of Social Solidarity for a story about discrimination against women in job interviews.