Editor’s note: When thinking about climate change, human health is probably not the first thing to come to mind. That said, the link between climate change and our own health is quite strong and should certainly be considered. The blog below further explores this connection through the eyes of a COP24 delegate.
Shifting the Conversation – Sahil Laul
Shifting the Conversation
Sahil Laul – B.S. Molecular and Cellular Biology and Global Health
I’ll be the first to admit writing blog posts is a difficult task for me—I much prefer to orate my personal experiences. My thoughts flow as a web and the linear parameters of a written piece often feel restrictive. But there is a power to writing—which I understand to reach beyond the spoken word—the power of dissemination. An oral story reaches your direct audience. A written piece, however, has the power to reach a large audience through shares, retweets, emails, texts, etc. And for that reason, I will do my best to write about one of the most powerful experiences I have had.
“Do I belong here?”
This was the question that incessantly rang in my head in the pre-trip meetings leading to the COP and during the first couple of days of the trip.
Don’t get me wrong—in no way did any fellow or faculty member make me feel like I did not belong, but rather this was an internal conflict I was struggling with.
When I first found out I was selected to be a UConn COP fellow I was incredibly grateful, but also surprised. There I was as a student studying Molecular Biology, Global Health, Spanish and Anthropology—subjects which seemed almost completely unrelated to the environment—on my way to the largest conference on climate change. Of course, climate change was a topic I was interested in and one which I believed was closely related to my discipline, but I was not sure if I had a place in the conversation amongst my peers who were environmental science, ecology and evolutionary biology, and geography majors.
This feeling lingered a bit into the COP where the conversations during the first couple of days heavily focused on the IPCC report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels and the source of related greenhouse gas emissions. Few tangible solutions were offered and even those which were suggested felt too obvious or far beyond my own comprehension. Equipped with a science background, I could appreciate the evidence based arguments. At the same time, however, I could discern a disconnect between the parties present at the conference—the scientific community insisting upon immediate action and delegates trying to make decisions best suited for their constituencies. It became clear that the actual arguments and solutions were being lost in translation somewhere in between.
Still, I decided to attend several sessions spanning a range of topics during the first two days to broaden my own understanding of climate science and the actions being taken to combat climate change. I listened passively taking in what I could and engaging when I could. Yet, I still felt that an important perspective was missing.
Although going into the COP, I was aware that health was not typically a large focus of the conference, I was surprised to see how absent the topic was from the conversation during the first two days. While I was personally hoping to hear more health related discussions given my own academic background, I also believed that it would be the source of the most compelling arguments. A global health professor once told me that “We are not saving our planet, we are saving ourselves.” She explained that our planet existed before us and would survive long after us, but we must combat climate change as we will be the ones to shoulder its effects. It seemed obvious to me that if the scientists at the conference were going to convince policymakers that climate change was an issue that needed to be addressed with immediate action, they would need to demonstrate the direct effects of climate change on people—their constituency.
Finally, on the third day of the conference, Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, presented the COP24 Special Report on Health and Climate change to bring health to the forefront of the conversation. I was exuberant to see the health argument being addressed but shocked to learn that the report was the first one of its kind to be presented at a COP. After hearing the report which cited air pollution resulting in climate change as the cause of death for 7 million people, it became even more apparent that health care workers play a key role in climate action. After the press conference, I had the opportunity to talk to her before she moderated a panel of medical, environmental, political, and economic professionals discussing the imminent issue of climate change and its severe impact on health.
After I explained my own background and how I had been struggling to see my future professional role in the context of climate change until her press conference, she said to me and another UConn COP fellow: “Remember that you are a politician. Sometimes the medical students tell me yeah I am not a politician. But I say you are wrong, you are a Politician with a big P because taking care of people’s well-being means politics—in the good sense—not party issues but politics.”
At that point, something else became clear to me. I had been struggling to understand my role as a COP fellow but also grappling with the fact that there was such a large disconnect between the scientists and policymakers at the conference. Upon reflection, however, the parallels between climate change and global public health became evident. As an MCB and Global Health student I aspire to bridge the gap between the science based medical community and policy based public health community. The common denominator between both groups are people and their health—whether the focus is at the micro or macro levels. In the same way, at the heart of climate change, are people. In order to address any issue which requires a policy change, whether it be war, trade, health, or climate change, we must shift the conversation on either end to understand the effects on people.