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The potentially groundbreaking negotiations currently underway on the international response to climate change and national implementation of commitments under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) include a number of hotly contested issues: (1) what degree of climate change is acceptable as a basis for emissions targets, (2) to what extent and in what ways climate change mitigation should incorporate emissions reductions or increased sinks for developing countries, (3) whether the legal regime governing mitigation can take advantage of the huge mitigation potential of changed practices in the land use and agricultural sectors, (4) how adaptation should be financed and at what level, and (5) what should be the priorities for adaptation funding. Health concerns should play a crucial role in resolving all of these questions, but it is by no means certain that they will. In addition to providing a more compelling justification for climate change mitigation and a means for evaluating what degree of climate change is acceptable, health concerns might shape the contours of an emissions trading mechanism by weighing in favor of including mitigation actions in developing countries as well as land use and agricultural sources of emissions and sinks. Such efforts represent low-cost reduction opportunities and have direct co-benefits for health. In addition to arguing for a secure financing mechanism with potential to generate massive funding for adaptation as a global health promotion priority, health policymakers should play a role in determining priorities for the use of adaptation funds. Emphasis on climate change as a fundamental transformation of our environment that will have important consequences for human health has the potential to motivate the additional political will needed to improve our global health infrastructure in ways that will better position us to provide routine services as everyday needs for those services intensify. Many potential climate change adaptation projects, such as the development of better disease surveillance and response capacity, improvements in sanitation, protection of food and water security, and the strengthening of natural disaster preparedness and response capabilities, look a lot like traditional international health initiatives. Because international cooperation for climate change adaptation is driven by the transboundary causes of climate change rather than the transboundary nature of the health threats at issue, the adaptation regime has the potential to prioritize some previously neglected health concerns that contribute significantly to the global burden of disease, even where those concerns do not pose a threat to the industrialized world. Given the importance of health impacts in advocating for and developing the mechanisms that will govern climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as the risk of diversion of funds away from global health initiatives toward climate change initiatives in a time when financial resources are being stretched thin due to a global economic crisis, global health policymakers must fight for their rightful place at the table in climate change negotiations and governance at the national and international level.

Publication Citation

24 J. Entl. L. & Litig. (forthcoming January, 2010)