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In oil-rich Dubai, public health takes the stage at global climate talks

Boston public health experts take warnings to climate summit
WATCH: Leaders from Harvard and BU are driving the agenda during the inaugural Health Day. Climate reporter Sabrina Shankman describes the historic event.

For the first time in the nearly 30-year history of the United Nations’ global climate talks, the annual conference will have a Health Day, an official venue that elevates the public health concerns from a warming planet. There, public health experts, including some from Boston, are expected to warn of an increasingly dire future, in which the human toll from extreme weather, infectious diseases, and air pollution worsens as emissions from fossil fuels continue.

And what a place to make their inaugural appearance: The annual conference is being held in Dubai, the glitzy pulse of the global oil patch. Host United Arab Emirates is among the world’s leading oil exporters, and it’s already being accused of putting its thumb on the scales in favor of fossil fuels.

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Starting Thursday, global leaders from 197 nations will gather for the two-week international climate summit known as COP28 to discuss the growing toll of climate change — and what can be done about it.

Public health experts will also make the case that the burning of fossil fuels is not just a driver of climate change, but also a massive medical threat that can no longer be overlooked.

“Rule number one for health professionals is to bring the stories of our patients — to bring the human face of these numbers — into the conversation and create an accountability for that,” said Gaurab Basu, a Boston-area physician and director of education and policy at Harvard Chan C-CHANGE, who will present at the conference.

Basu is hoping that by being in Dubai and telling the stories of his patients, he can help show the stakes for keeping the worst of warming at bay.

He’s one of several Boston-area health and climate experts attending the talks. With its globally leading institutions, Boston has long been a hotbed of research at the intersection of health and climate change. Now, as the UN conference holds its first official Health Day on Saturday, some of those experts will help drive the agenda.

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Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics, population, and data science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, will be making the case that air pollution — which is sometimes not considered to be directly related to climate change — and its deadly impacts must be taken into account.

“The climate conversation is all about burning fossil fuels, and burning fossil fuels is the main and most toxic source of air pollution,” she said. On panels and in conversations with the gathered officials, she’ll be driving that point home.

Elizabeth Willetts, director of planetary health policy at Harvard’s school of public health, said she’s hoping to raise awareness about how little health has previously been taken into account at the climate talks, and find ways to address health issues through the process there.

Willetts and other experts said they hope their involvement will lead to increased reporting on health outcomes, and a new consideration of how climate change impacts health. But even before the talks begin, many climate advocates and experts were skeptical that public health would be properly addressed.

“For as long as I can remember, health has never been treated as a serious factor in the consideration of climate action or as a significant driver of climate investments,” Gina McCarthy, former national climate adviser to the White House, wrote in the Financial Times in early November.

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She is among the climate leaders calling for negotiators to agree to phase down all fossil fuels. But that may be a long shot.

In October, Health and Policy Watch reported that a draft of the “health and climate ministerial declaration” set to be released during the climate talks omits any reference to fossil fuels and their harms. Instead, the declaration focuses largely on the need to adapt health systems to climate change.

This year’s talks are also being led by Sultan al-Jaber, who is the head of the United Arab Emirates’ state-owned oil and gas company. Earlier this week, the Centre for Climate Reporting and the BBC reported on leaked documents that show the UAE plans to use its position as host to lobby for oil and gas deals around the world.

The COP28 Health Day will be held just weeks after the release of the latest Lancet Countdown, an annual report on climate change and health conditions produced by a group of leading scientists, detailing how the continued dependence on fossil fuels is impacting our health.

According to the report, air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels results in 1.9 million premature deaths across the globe annually.

Despite 27 years of annual climate-change negotiations, world leaders still refuse to acknowledge the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels,” wrote Lancet Countdown executive director Maria Romanello, who is also a climate change and health researcher at University College London.

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At the conference, Dominici, of Harvard, will also be sharing the results of her latest study, published earlier this month in the journal Science, which showed how many deaths are caused by air pollution at individual coal-fired power plants in the United States.

By analyzing emissions data and Medicare records, Dominici and her coauthors found that between 1999 and 2020, 460,000 excess deaths among Medicare enrollees were attributable to coal-fired power plants. The tiny particulates emitted from coal power plants, known as PM2.5, raise the risk of many life-threatening conditions, including asthma, heart disease, low birth weights, and some cancers. The researchers found that PM2.5 emitted from coal plants is twice as deadly as the same particulates from other sources, such as vehicles or factories.

The coal plants associated with the most deaths were in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, and Alabama.

Dominici said she hopes this paper will “put to rest” the idea that coal-fired power plants are safe to keep running.

Beyond coal-fired power plants, pollution from gas and diesel cars and trucks is not only warming the planet, but also continuing to dirty the air and endanger health.

Climate-related health impacts also extend far beyond air pollution. Extreme weather driven by climate change has led to food insecurity and water scarcity. According to the Lancet report, 127 million more people were exposed to moderate or severe food insecurity in 2021, compared to 1981-2010, due to more heat waves and droughts.

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As the global climate warms and disease-carrying pests shift, more people have also become increasingly at risk from potentially life-threatening illnesses like dengue, malaria, vibriosis, and West Nile virus.

In past years, Dominici said, “it’s been very frustrating that there was no health consideration” in the climate talks, especially given how hard it has been to get firm commitments to fossil fuel reductions into the final agreement. Having an official health day is definitely progress, she said.



Sabrina Shankman can be reached at sabrina.shankman@globe.com. Follow her @shankman.