After Durban – what we can do

Original post published 14 December 2011

On December 4th 2011 we had an amazing event in Durban. More than 250 participants mostly from the health sector and from more than 30 countries attended the First Global Climate and Health Summit. It was opened by South Africa's Minister of Health Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi and closed with an inspirational speech by Kumi Naidoo, the head of Greenpeace International who told the health sector gathered there how important they are to addressing climate change. We also had a closer from the Premier (or Governor) of KwaZulu Natal province who is also a doctor. In between we had seven amazing panels and some incredible Zulu dancers adding a powerful cultural element. It's the first conference I've ever organized where no one complained, and everyone stayed. The Minister stayed for more than an hour after his talk to listen. There were well over 200 people in the audience at the end. The party afterward went on and on. And all of this was on a Sunday, starting at 8 and ending at 7pm, with the party going till about 10. You get the picture!

Special recognition goes to Alejandra from HCWH and Rico from our South Africa partner organization groundWork, as well as Rajen and Lungi from the Nelson Mandel Medical School for making the conference such a success.

You can access the Declaration, Call to Action and more at   We will be posting video of most of the conference sometime in the next 10 days, and we'll be getting all the conference presentations up as well.

Two days later, December 6th 2011, we did a press conference inside the UN meeting, which was well attended, as well as a photo op of doctors taking the temperature of a giant inflatable earth and finding that it was overheating. Media coverage report and links forthcoming.

Despite the madness of 18,000 people attending the UNFCCC negotiations, our event, and conference declaration has had resonance well beyond Sunday and well beyond Durban.

Lots of great opportunities have come out of this event to build our work on climate and health. The Summit was organized by a partnership of more than 10 major health organizations from around the world. Our conference Call to Action is a framework that we will use for ongoing collaboration. All of the organizations seem motivated and committed to work on the issue and to continue to build our working relationships. New partnerships are being formed and plans developed. So that's all extremely positive.  And it needs to be, given the gravity of the situation………

Global Health Alert: Here's the downside of it all. And it's serious. We are losing the battle; the global and national politics are paralyzed as emissions continue to rise rapidly and climate change impact scenarios get worse and worse --- more and more serious.

We are entering an extremely dangerous moment for the future of humanity. That may sound overblown, but what is clear from the situation at the climate negotiations, is it is not. I'm not writing this note lightly. To try to put it as simply as possible: the emissions threshold that scientists think might be safe, is a global rise in temperature of 1.5 degrees celsius. We are past that. In fact, we are moving past a 2 degrees scenario. Two degrees is a level at which scientists aren't sure if we will have dangerous climate change that wreaks havoc on global health and ecological stability. That scenario was created a couple of decades ago when we knew less about what the impacts might be and when they might happen (it was sort of a 50-50 shot then). Today we are already seeing impacts that weren't supposed to happen until decades from now. So even 2 degrees is sketchy in terms of what it means and where not even there yet. On top of that we are now looking more like we're headed toward 3.5 degrees and quite possibly well beyond that given emissions patterns. The implications of this are unknown. But what is clear is that what used to be the worst case scenarios that scientists modeled are now becoming the best case scenarios, and the worst case scenarios are far beyond them. Gains in global health and environmental protection will be overwhelmed and undermined by this kind of climate change. Maria Neira from WHO, usually a mild-mannered organization, got up at a press conference we organized and declared a "global health alert."

That's a lay person's summary of the science. Meanwhile, despite over 20 years of climate negotiations, emissions continue to rise --- pretty much in every country. Climate convention, Kyoto protocol, etc. have all failed to make a dent in things. To avoid potentially catastrophic climate change they would have to peak in the next few years and then drop precipitously which would require a fundamental restructuring of our economies and societies. In Durban, it appears that the world's governments may finally be agreeing on something. Unfortunately that something is to delay the negotiation of a legally binding treaty until 2020. Nine years from now. Imagine that: confronted with the evidence of a looming crisis of unprecedented proportions, they are punting. This is tonic for countries whose politics are largely captured by the fossil fuel industry and/or large developing countries that are rapidly growing based on a coal-based development model. The consensus from those who have followed this process from the NGO side, several negotiators and many in Durban who are familiar with the science is that at the rate we are going, by 2020 we may all be toast. I'm on my way back from Durban right now and by the time you read this note the COP may be over and they will announce some green climate funds, and some general agreements (hopefully a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol), but don't be lulled into complacency, the solutions they are coming up with in Durban do not come close to measuring up to the magnitude and gravity of the problem.

What we can do: I write you all this not to take you down and disempowering you (it can be quite scary and depressing), but rather to impress upon everyone the gravity of the situation and the need to move beyond business as usual and consider how we can step up our efforts to mobilize the health sector around climate. It is urgent that the health sector mobilizes and helps build a global groundswell of political pressure to turn this situation around. HCWH and our partners are extremely well situated to do this.

One of the clear points that came out of our post-conference strategy meetings is that if we don't change the positions of national governments we will never have a meaningful global agreement that truly tackles climate change. Such change, people from countries ranging from Australia to South Africa to the US agreed, needs to come from movements from below — especially those that address the link between fossil fuels, public health and climate change and that argue that a clean, renewable energy path is essential to protecting public health.

We need to redouble our efforts and move forward together around the world.


Joshua Karliner
International Team Coordinator
Health Care Without Harm

Original Blog Post