Climate change - what can child health professionals do and how is it relevant to the healthcare setting?

As this year’s RCPCH Conference gets ever closer, keynote speaker Dr Maria Neira, Director of Environment, Climate Change and Health at the World Health Organization, gives us a preview of what she will be taking to the main stage to discuss.
Dr Maria Neira

Climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity today and is already affecting the health and wellbeing of populations around the world. Increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, drought, storms and flooding, and increases in zoonoses and food-, water- and vector-borne diseases are challenging health professionals and healthcare systems globally. Children, especially those living in low- and middle-income countries, are disproportionality affected by climate-related health risks.

Action must be taken now to protect children’s health from climate change. And I believe that health professionals are in one of the most powerful positions to influence change and action on climate and the environment.  

Child health professionals have powerful roles to play in both climate adaptation and mitigation strategies that will protect child health. They can work directly with their patients in the clinic to protect them from climate threats, and diagnose and treat them for climate- and environment-related health conditions. They can work collaboratively with local public health officials and within their community to support local climate change protection strategies and ensure that interventions protect the health of the most vulnerable, including children and pregnant people.

Additionally, personal choices and decisions in healthcare settings matter and can make considerable differences. Globally, the healthcare sector is responsible for an estimated 4.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Stories, testimonies and case studies from healthcare settings are effective means of educating others

It is vital that health professionals take the lead and set good examples by taking actions such as “greening” clinics and healthcare practices, choosing low emission options in personal and professional lives, and educating others on the dangers of climate change and how to reduce their impact on the environment.

Paediatricians, nurses, midwives, community healthcare workers and other health professionals are powerful voices of advocacy. Stories, testimonies and case studies from healthcare settings are effective means of educating others on the effects that climate change is having on children’s health, and are powerful tools to influence policy change.

Ten years of multisectoral, collaborative campaigning, including by the health sector, following the death of nine-year-old Ella from asthma exacerbated by air pollution, has seen the Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill be presented to the government in the UK. This is an example of the power that testimony from healthcare, among other sectors, can have.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is scaling up its work on climate change and child health. WHO’s activities focus on supporting countries in building climate-resilient health systems, advocacy and partnerships, monitoring and evidence gathering and health sector capacity building to protect health from climate change.

Group of cyclists
Ride for their Lives
Credit: WHO/Violaine Martin

Engaging with child health professionals is key to many of WHO’s programmes. In 2022, WHO staff members participated in the Ride for their Lives, cycling from Geneva to Naples. Ride for their Lives is a global campaign to inspire action on air pollution and the wider climate crisis. The WHO staff members connected with hospitals and health organisations along the way and carried with them the Healthy Climate Prescription Letter, from 46 million health workers and the call for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both call on governments to deliver on climate action.

Additionally, WHO recently launched the Alliance for Transformative Action on Climate and Health (ATACH). ATACH is an informal voluntary network for participants to exchange views, share information, and enhance technical and political co-operation. It aims to realize the ambitions set at COP26 to build climate resilient and sustainable health systems. More than 60 countries have committed to making their healthcare systems climate-resilient and low carbon.

Health professionals are the backbone of health care systems and are essential to ensure that climate resilient measures are successful, sustainable and our children’s futures are protected. 

Join the conversation, book your delegate place at this year’s RCPCH Conference.