There could not be a more appropriate affair for Earth Day 2016 than the most pivotal environment-related event in our history. On April 22, leaders of 192 countries will gather at the United Nations headquarters in New York City to sign the historic Paris agreement on climate change, which officially turns the verbal commitment by the entire world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into action.
One of the most significant triumphs of the Paris agreement is the recognition of health humankind’s primary concern in the context of climate change. Specifically, the parties to the agreement recognize “the social, economic, and environmental value of voluntary mitigation actions and their co-benefits for adaptation, health, and sustainable development” as part of their strategies and policies by 2020.
There is no bigger threat to public health than climate change, which has been primarily caused by continuous emissions of greenhouse gases, aerosols, and other pollution from fossil fuels. This becomes an even bigger dilemma in the Philippines, a country with more than 25 percent of its population living under the poverty line as of 2014, as reported by the National Statistical Coordination Board.
Air pollution resulting from fossil fuels is a major health hazard in urban areas, especially in Metro Manila. Around 80 percent of air pollution in the metropolis is emitted by the transportation sector, according to a study by the Environmental Management Bureau. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reports that 12 percent of premature deaths in Metro Manila is caused by poor air quality, especially particulate matter. Inhalation and ingestion of these pollutants can cause various respiratory and cardiovascular diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, and stroke.
According to a report released by the Philippines Environment Monitor in 2004, poor air quality leads to around P1 billion of health costs due to medical expenses and lost income from missing workdays. With a growing population and traffic flow rated as among the worst in the world, more people in Metro Manila will be exposed to air pollution, resulting in a higher impact on the economy.
Fossil fuels also have indirect impacts on public health through a drastic shift on global and local climate. For instance, heat waves have been observed in Europe and India over the past decade, where temperatures reached higher than 40 degrees Celsius resulting in thousands of deaths due to heat stroke and extreme dehydration. Massive death caused by heat waves may possibly occur in our country in the near future. Recently, the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) recorded the highest heat index — the actual temperature felt by the body based on air temperature and humidity — at 51 degrees Celsius in Nueva Ecija and in Metro Manila at 39.3 degrees Celsius.
Recent temperature measurements from PAGASA suggest that heat wave episodes may be not far off from becoming more frequent in the Philippines within a few decades. This emerging trend does not only directly endanger Filipinos with heat-related diseases; it also threatens the food and water security in the country, which can further exacerbate the health conditions of the poor and vulnerable.
Climate change can also affect public health by influencing the spread of diseases. The rising temperatures worldwide have attracted disease vectors such as mosquitoes and ticks, which thrive in warmer, wetter climates. This has led to the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever onto new areas and an increase in cases of these illnesses in tropical countries. The increase in episodes of heavy downpours and floods can cause an increased occurrence of water-borne diseases such as cholera.
In the Philippines, there were nearly 100 thousand dengue cases from January to September 2015, a 23.5 percent increase from the previous year according to the Department of Health (DOH). In a released repot in reliefweb.int, the author cited Dr. Romeo Turingan, a dengue expert from DOH, attributing climate change as a factor that may have aggravated dengue incidence in the country.
Now more than ever, it becomes more urgent to ensure the health of our ecosystems to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Healthy ecosystems provide the necessary goods and services such as providing adequate supply of water and food, moderating weather extremes and their impacts, mitigating droughts and floods, regulating disease carrying organisms and controlling pest outbreaks, purifying the air and water, and many more. Protecting and conserving natural ecosystems, such as our forests, ensures the health and wellbeing of human populations.
We can only hope that when our country becomes a signatory to the Paris agreement, our current and future leaders will finally take the lead in ensuring the safety and well-being of its citizens, as mandated by both national laws and international treaties and ensuring the conservation of our natural ecosystems, more so the protection of our Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) and Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs).
In the fight against climate change, even a single word on a piece of paper can change the world. And on a historic Earth Day, our eyes should be placed on our world leaders as they begin to transform their stance on climate change from signatures to signs of committed action to a sustainable future. Especially with our health and our lives on the line.
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