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Boy walks through smog in Port Harcourt, Nigeria

A school boy walks past smoke and fumes emitted from a dump on February 14, 2017 in the city of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, where the oil industry has pushed development and caused major air pollution in recent decades. (Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images)

WHO Leads Global Health Coalition Demand for Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty

"It is our duty to prioritize our patients' safety, dignity, and comfort and we are duty-bound to speak out about the serious global health risks posed by the continued extraction and use of fossil fuels," said nearly 200 global health groups.

Julia Conley

Citing the health and safety risks directly linked to fossil fuel pollution, nearly 200 global health groups Wednesday joined the World Health Organization in calling on international governments to agree to a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty—an agreement to rapidly end oil, gas, and coal production and exploration and ensure a just transition to a renewable energy economy.

"It's time for world leaders to meet the bar for climate leadership by working together to end the fossil fuel era in a way that is fair and fast."

Scientists have been joined in recent years by the International Energy Agency and pro-climate action policymakers in demanding that governments phase out fossil fuels in order to prevent global heating over 2°C, but the open letter spearheaded by the Global Climate Health Alliance, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Health Care Without Harm represents a landmark moment, organizers said.

"This is the first time the health sector has come together to issue such a statement explicitly about fossil fuels," Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, coordinator of the WHO's climate change and health program, told The Guardian. "The current burden of death and disease from air pollution is comparable to that of tobacco use, while the long-term effects of fossil fuels on the Earth's climate present an existential threat to humanity—as do nuclear weapons."

Organizers compared the call for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to similar treaties aimed at controlling the promotion of tobacco products and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. One signatory, Ira Helfand of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, noted that the climate crisis is "deeply intertwined" with the danger of nuclear war.

"The climate crisis is leading to greater international conflict and a growing risk of nuclear war, and nuclear war will cause catastrophic, abrupt climate disruption," said Helfand in a statement. "The world must come together to prevent both of these existential threats."

The open letter outlined the risks to human health posed by the continued extraction of fossil fuels and the resulting emissions, including:

  • Air pollution, which has been linked to seven million premature deaths per year and rising cases of cardiovascular disease, respiratory conditions, and cancer;
  • The creation of conditions ideal for "the transmission of food and water-borne diseases and spread of vector-borne diseases, undermining decades of progress in global public health";
  • Increased risk of heat-related illness and death, especially for young children, outdoor workers, athletes, and older adults;
  • Jeopardized food and water security due to droughts, floods, extreme weather events, and sea level rise;
  • The disruption of global medical supply chains and healthcare operations due to extreme weather events; and
  • The increased prevalence of mental health conditions including anxiety and depression, especially in young people, as fossil fuel extraction continues and the effects of the climate emergency affect more and more communities.

The signatories also noted that people who live near oil and gas extraction sites are more likely to experience respiratory ailments, proximity to petrochemical refineries is linked to increased risk of childhood asthma and hematological malignancies, and communities located near extraction activity are often at greater risk for threats and violence if they seek to protect their homes from development.

"Health professionals work hard to save lives," reads the open letter, which was signed by groups including the International Pediatric Association, the Public Health Foundation of India, and the West Humanitarian Response Committee in Uganda. "It is our duty to prioritize our patients' safety, dignity, and comfort and we are duty-bound to speak out about the serious global health risks posed by the continued extraction and use of fossil fuels."

Harjeet Singh, the global engagement director of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative, was "thrilled to see health professionals step out of their operating rooms, clinics, and offices... for the sake of people and the planet, alongside a growing chorus of heads of government, Nobel laureates, leading academics and civil society."

"The world is waking up to the reality of the climate crisis which is inextricably tied to millions of lives and their health," said Singh. "It's time for world leaders to meet the bar for climate leadership by working together to end the fossil fuel era in a way that is fair and fast."

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