Climate change, migration and global health: finding the missing connection

In the past few decades, we have seen climate change play an increasing role on migration and displacement. Natural disasters, extreme heat waves, droughts, floods, water scarcity and soil infertility are some of the reasons which lead to migration. In 2015 alone, out of the 27.8 million people displaced around the world, 19.2 million was due to natural disasters in 113 countries, according to Greenpeace’s Climate Change, Migration, and Displacement study (2017).

Image: Greenpeace’s Climate Change, Migration, and Displacement study (2017)
Although civil society and governments already understand and begin to address the issues of migration and climate change, there is another connection which is not getting as much traction: global health. Only now the public health community is realising that a major obstacle to global health is climate change.

Only few attempts have been made to consider the complex relationship between climate change, migration and health as an integrated issue. Yesterday afternoon, during the panel “Displacements induced by El Niño: a public health issue”, specialists highlighted the importance of partnering with on the ground organizations and initiatives, realizing that progress made at international forums do not reflect the local realities.

“The problem is that these three nexus (public health, migration and climate change, e.d.) are working independently from each other. Each of them is producing its own policy instruments, its own policy developments, its own initiatives and sometimes they work in clusters without acknowledging what is being done in other constituencies” declared François Gemenne, University of Liège, specialist in environmental geopolitics and migration dynamics, during the panel.
According to Gemenne, the insufficient connection among the three nexus can lead to counterproductive results and this already happens in migration and climate negotiations, the first one aiming to slow down and limit migration and the second one to push people to migrate in order to adapt. “Even in the absence of any political judgement of where we should be heading, one can see the contradiction between these two policy processes,” Gemenne underlined.
As argued by Nick Watts, assistant professor at the University College London, when it comes to health, it is also fundamental to keep into consideration the “correlation of previously uncorrelated risks”. Several factors can put communities in distress: malnutrition caused by floods, mental issues as consequence of weather disasters, spread of diseases.

A self-evident example of this relation between climate change and health hazards is what follows El Niño events. El Niño is a meteorological phenomenon the consequences of which have been acknowledged for millennia. But only in the early 1990s, when the phenomenon has started becoming stronger, studies and researches have begun to tackle it.
Every about five years El Niño and La Niña cause respectively a raise or a reduction of the water temperature in the Pacific Ocean, with consequences as a higher rate of rainfall, a raise of the ocean water, floods, and so on. Although the two phenomena are not predictable, in the last thirty years not only they have become stronger, but more frequent, happening even more times in the same year, and in places where they had never occurred before.

The reason for these changes has been blamed on climate change and human actions which affect it. Besides the consequences on land, agriculture and food production, aftermaths have recently been recorded on global health and the spread of infectious diseases. Therefore, not only the number of people killed, injured or displaced by climate disasters occurring as consequence of El Niño are extremely alarming, but also the transmission of diseases such as malaria, dengue and zika.

As pointed out by Antoine Flahahult, professor at the University of Geneva, the spread of the Zika fever in Brazil has been scientifically reconducted to a strong El Niño event in 2015, as the Spanish flu wave in 1918 was caused by an intense La Niña. The latter is also cause of a lower rate of rains, which has been observed to cause itself acute diarrhea in children from Africa. The correlation between scarcity of rain and spread of diarrhea has not yet been understood completely, but it is supposed that the lack of water may lead to a lack of hygiene, which can cause the disease.

Out of the negotiation rooms and into action
The detachment between the progress that seems to be taking place in international forums and, on the other hand, the progress that is taking place on the ground shows how international policy makers, researchers and the UNFCCC can be alienated from what happens outside of the negotiation rooms in COP.

“We sometimes remain too much enclosed in the COP bubble and not enough connected with the local organisations and the local policy makers that are responding to these issues on the ground”, Gemenne underlined.
In 2015, the Paris Agreement recognized adaptation to climate change as a crucial part of climate action, establishing a task force to develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.

According to the official text, the taskforce will “complement, draw upon the work of and involve, as appropriate, existing bodies and expert groups under the Convention as well as relevant organizations and expert bodies outside the Convention, to develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.”

However, Gemenne is critical of the taskforce, as it is not open to other constituencies that are not usually present in the negotiations. “We need to realize that there are other fundamental discussions on these issues that are taking place outside the COP and we need to reach out to them, because if we don’t do so, any progress that we make in these rooms will become meaningless on the field, because it’ll not be matched with similar progress in negotiation processes in other multilateral forums at the global and local level”.

Finally, the title used by Gemenne for his presentation may easily explain the necessity of connecting planetary health, climate change and migration, because “a threesome is healthier than a love triangle.”

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