A Health In Harmony Volunteer Goes to COP21

Guest blog by Latha Swamy

Climate change is the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.

If you are on this page, you have probably heard or read this statement before. Most recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) released this call to action in the lead up to the UN Climate Negotiations (21st Conference of the Parties, or COP21) in Paris in early December.

The Negotiations

Health In Harmony volunteer Latha Swamy, working as a Secratariat at COP21 | Photo: Latha Swamy

HIH volunteer Latha Swamy poses behind the Secretariat's name plate after negotiations wrap-up for the day | Photo: Latha Swamy

Over 40,000 civil society observers, government delegation members, heads of state (from over 190 countries), lawyers, negotiators, policymakers, healthcare professionals, scientists, students (the list goes on…) gathered in Paris the last two weeks to come to a global agreement about where we stand, where we are headed, and more specifically, what needs to be done about rapid climate change and its impact on people and planet. That’s no small order.

This was my second time attending the UN Climate Negotiations. I have had the opportunity to work with both civil society organizations (last year at COP20 in Lima, Peru) and government delegations (this year, with the country of Seychelles and other small island developing states). On this global, UN level, I work to advocate for a fair, equitable, and legally binding global agreement, especially in terms of gender justice and human and indigenous rights.

This year, with better planning and more time, I was also able to incorporate the work that I like to be involved with on-the-ground – tropical forests and health care. After spending my summer in Sukadana, I wanted to understand how a program like ASRI fits into the global climate agenda.

With this in mind, I was keen on following not only how gender was being addressed in the Paris Agreement, but how the 190+ countries will 1) address the human health concerns of climate change, 2) allow emerging economies to continue economic development, and 3) still aim to protect Earth’s limited natural resources, namely tropical forests.


The Agreement

Forests, and especially tropical forests, are not typically figured into the climate negotiations or agreements as prominently as they should; same goes for health. This ignores the facts that deforestation is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and that a rapidly changing climate impacts human health in innumerable ways. A few champion countries and NGOs have battled for years to get forests, and health care, in the legally binding text – a way to inextricably tie them to climate change in a global accord.

So where does the new Paris Agreement leave us with this?


The Moment

Closing plenary with Ban Ki-Moon and Laurent Fabius, COP President | Photo: Latha Swamy

Closing plenary with Ban Ki-Moon and Laurent Fabius, COP President | Photo: Latha Swamy

I was sitting in the Closing Plenary as Heads of State, including John Kerry and Ibu Nur Masripatin, a representative from the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry, filtered in. Still frantically reading the final document that had been released (checking for the terms forest, health, and gender), I felt unprepared for the historic, emotionally overwhelming, moment that came. The COP President called out to the audience for any objections to the agreement – NONE from any of the Parties! The gavel struck. I couldn’t believe it! The agreement was final, binding, and officially accepted.

It is hopeful, but just a start.

Forests finally made it into this global agreement. Countries collectively recognized that the ecosystem services and benefits of buffering climate change through forests and reducing deforestation is a key part of tackling this issue. Specific mentions of forests were listed under the Finance section of the document, highlighting the need for developed countries to support developing countries in their efforts to curb emissions from deforestation, and work on on-the-ground solutions to protect their remaining forests. Another positive outcome from the agreement was highlighting how (finance for) climate adaptation is a central pillar in helping communities that are most vulnerable.

However, the mention of health and directly connecting it to the impacts of climate change were largely left out of the agreement. Thankfully, the right to health was mentioned as a key tenet to sustainable, safe development moving forward, especially when climate mitigation efforts are taken seriously.


The Aftermath

Latha speaking to Jane Goodall about human health and forests | Photo: Latha Swamy

Latha speaking to Jane Goodall about human health and forests | Photo: Latha Swamy

Again, countries coming together to agree on a global agreement is hopeful, but just the beginning. The real work comes when the details of the agreement are put into motion at the national and sub-national levels.

Thinking about my time at ASRI, I could not help but recognize how the model established by Health In Harmony contributes directly to the ideals put forth by the Paris Agreement. ASRI actively works to curb and disincentivize deforestation, provides the opportunity to the right to health (to communities that are most vulnerable to the health and long-term economic impacts of this very deforestation from slash-and-burn agricultural practices), and serves as a unique example of climate adaptation that tackles environmental degradation through behavior change and provision of essential services and basic rights.

In also attending the Global Climate and Health Summit and the Global Landscapes Forum, held over the weekend of the negotiations, one thing struck me – I never came across another program that made a connection between tropical forests, rural poverty, and health care access, or how this could relate to climate change.

Reflecting on both my experiences in Paris and in Sukadana, it is clear that Health In Harmony and ASRI definitely have a unique roll to play in fulfilling the reality of the global climate agenda set forth in the Paris Agreement at COP21.

About Latha Swamy

Latha Swamy is a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and was previously an MD/PhD student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She volunteered at ASRI in August 2015 with the Conservation Program, interviewing clinic patients and families to evaluate the impact of ASRI’s model of increasing conservation awareness and influencing conservation-minded behavior. Below, she reflects on her experience attending the UNFCCC COP21 Climate Negotiations, the Global Climate & Health Summit, and the Global Landscapes Forum, all in Paris, France November 30 - December 12, 2015.


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