On Wednesday the 16th of November, UCL held it’s annual Lancet lecture on climate change. It was a buzzing, charismatic lecture full of optimism and hope for the future. In great contrast to the current political situation system it was amazing to have such uplifting talk given by leading UN diplomats. The main speaker of the night was Christiana Figueres the Climate Change Executive Secretary responsible for steering the Paris Agreement to a successful conclusion. She spoke grandly about the monumental step the world had taken towards sustainability through signing by having signed the Paris Climate Change Agreement. Figueres spoke of a turning point, and described how we had now set a direction for our course. Emphasising that this was an agreement like no other, she pointed out that the Paris Agreement had already broken several records. The agreement had been signed by 159 countries and already ratified by 109, this level of speed to ratify an agreement is unprecedented in the history of the UN said the Costa Rican diplomat.
Figueres enthusiastically described the main goal of the Paris agreement: to release less carbon than we can absorb into the atmosphere and to maintain global warming below the 2ºC threshold. This is definitely an ambitious goal, more ambitious if you count that the Paris agreement is not legally binding and meaning that countries are not obliged to keep to their commitments. Yet Christiana Figueres believes in the agreement's ability to succeed if we successfully debunk the myth that acting on climate change is more expensive than not acting.
What did she identify as the basis of her argument? There is a general consensus that burning of fossil fuels has a tremendous impact on our health and therefore costs money to our health services, our communities and economies. Figueres was insistent on the equation “decreased emissions = increased health levels”, putting forward the message that this issue is not just about climate change as an abstract concept. This issue is about our health, which is far more relatable than the wellbeing of polar bears.
The facts are that “18,000 people die every day from air pollution”, “300 million children live in areas of extreme air pollution" and “600 000 children die a year from pollution” (more than those who die from HIV and malaria). Figueres felt that this is more relatable than trying to envision impacts of climate change which do not pose an immediate threat to human wellbeing - the loss of biodiversity, changes in weather pattern and rising sea levels for example. Accordingly, Figueres stressed our role in translating the impacts of climate change into a health setting as being vital to push countries and people to act on climate change.
At UCL we have a society that works directly within this area; Healthy Planet UCL is a Medsin campaign which works to raise awareness of the impacts of climate change on health and healthcare delivery. Our mission as a society is to offer engaging events which support efforts towards sustainable futures at our university level and within society. This is a massive task, climate change is threatening to completely transform how we see our daily life. Increased temperatures may lead to areas of the world becoming impossible to use for the production of food, increase in carbon in the atmosphere will lead to acidification of our oceans - harming plankton which form the basis of the ocean food chain, the increasing intensity and spontaneity of natural disasters could fuel massive levels of displacement around the globe.
There are myriad of avenues through which climate change will affect our health and wellbeing and also many things we can do to stem the consequences. If you would like to delve into these issues further, Connecting the Dots is a conference being held in UCL on the 26th of November. Organised by Medsin, and with a variety of key speakers working in the field, it will offer you with the opportunity to learn more about how climate change impacts health and how the international community are combating their impacts already.
Media attention has recently been drawn to the 48 developing countries which have pledged their commitment to sourcing 100% of their energy from renewable sources. The growing momentum we are seeing may be just what the planet needs to combat the huge barriers it faces to addressing climate change. More is to be seen and with the recent appointment of Donald Trump as president-elect of the USA it is easy to be pessimistic. However, as Christina Figueres stated “the direction of travel is set. It was set by science, it was set by economics, it was set by technological innovations and it was set by moral imperative. We are going down a decarbonation path. There will be vehicles that decide to park on the curb, but we must not get distracted. We are on a mission and that mission is to make the vehicle electric, autonomous, shared and completely driven by renewable energy. Don’t get distracted by the cars parked on the curb as they’re usually the ones in trouble.”
The UCL Lancet Lecture 2016 is available to watch on YouTube here.