International health organisations call for fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty to protect lives of current and future generations
The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change has joined more than 1000 health professionals and 200 health organisations from around the world who have called on governments to urgently develop and implement a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to end global dependence on fossil fuels, in order to protect the health of people around the world.
The World Health Organization, the International Pediatric Association, the World Medical Association, the Alliance of Nurses for a Healthy Environment, and the World Federation of Public Health Associations are amongst the signatories of a letter that demands that governments lay out a legally binding global plan to phase out fossil fuel use.
“The modern addiction to fossil fuels is not just an act of environmental vandalism. From the health perspective, it is an act of self-sabotage”, said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization.
Comparable to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the proposed Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty would be an evidence-based international agreement to control a category of substances well-known to be harmful to human health: coal, oil and gas. The health risks associated with burning these fossil fuels are numerous and present severe threats to human and planetary health. Several other sectors have called for such a treaty including cities and faith organizations across the world. The letter was initiated by the Global Climate and Health Alliance, and Physicians for Social Responsibility with the support of the World Health Organization, the WHO-Civil Society Working Group on Climate and Health and Health Care Without Harm.
“Rapid progress towards net zero emissions is essential to protect health in the face of escalating impacts of climate change. The Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty has great potential to accelerate the pace and scale of climate action for health”, said Sir Andy Haines, Professor of Environmental Change and Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“We know that emissions have to be slashed to limit warming to safe levels, we know fossil fuels are the greatest driver of emissions, and we know that phasing out fossil fuels is the only way to reap many of the health co-benefits of climate mitigation – so why then are governments permitting new drilling, new mining and new pipelines?”, said Liz Hanna, RN, PhD, Chair for Environmental Health of the World Federation of Public Health Associations. “The science on this is clear: new fossil fuel development is completely incompatible with a healthy climate and a healthy future”.
“The two overriding issues of our era–the climate crisis and the danger of nuclear war–are deeply intertwined. 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. The world must come together to prevent both of these existential threats”, said Ira Helfand, MD Immediate Past President, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.
“It’s plain to see why we need a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty: fossil fuels are not just toxic to people’s health – every stage of the fossil fuel cycle puts people’s health at risk, from mining and fracking to transport through pipelines, to processing and finally to burning fossil fuels for transport, electricity, and industrial use”, said Jeni Miller, Executive Director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance. “For decades we’ve depended on the capacity of fossil fuels to provide energy , but we now have alternatives that are cleaner and more sustainable – and compatible with the healthier future we want ”.
“Access to clean energy is vital for lifting people out of poverty, supporting economic development, delivering education and health care, and many other determinants of health” Clean energy alternatives to burning fossil fuels exist, but many countries do not have the means and technical expertise to make the transition”, said Miller. “High income countries have benefited from the last hundred plus years of fossil fuel use. These countries have the resources and moral responsibility not only to make the clean energy transition, but to support developing countries to do the same, so that we can phase out poverty and health inequities while ending dependency on fossil fuels.”
“While the energy transition cannot be delayed, we also cannot leave behind the communities and workers that currently depend on fossil fuel jobs”, said Miller. “Governments need to put in place solutions that enable workers and communities to transition into a clean energy economy that supports a healthy and sustainable future, with local communities at the table to help define the shape those solutions take”.
“Air pollution kills over 7 million people a year worldwide, while over 90% people in the world live in places that exceed World Health Organization limits for air pollution. Phasing out fossil fuels would prevent 3.6 million air pollution deaths per year, an immense near-term health benefit to achieve the steps essential to mitigating climate change in the long term”, continued Miller.
“Fossil fuels are a key driver of climate change and pollution – affecting people worldwide but most insidiously vulnerable populations and low- and middle-income countries that suffer from higher exposure. The phase out of fossil fuels is the single most important public health intervention we can achieve”, said Diana Picon Manyari, International Climate Director of Health Care Without Harm. “As public health advocates and health professionals we recognize our role in ensuring that the health sector commits to lowering its own reliance on fossil fuels, while also advocating for a just transition into healthy, clean energy.
“We are thrilled to see health professionals step out of their operating rooms, clinics and offices to support the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty 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. 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” said Harjeet Singh, Global Engagement Director of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative.
“As health professionals, we are struggling to protect the health of our communities from the impacts of climate change already here”, said Laalitha Surapaneni, practicing internal medicine physician and national board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Leaving fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong, is a common sense public health measure. A rapid, just transition away from fossil fuels is an investment in health equity. For my patients, clean air is medicine, and the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, the prescription.”
“Pediatricians work hard to save lives”, said Ruth A. Etzel, MD, Co-Chair of the International Pediatric Association’s Environmental Health Strategic Advisory Group. “We have an ethical duty of care, and we cannot stay silent about the global health risks that fossil fuels represent. Our message to government leaders around the world is this: The health of everyone alive today, and of future generations, depends on phasing out fossil fuels, rapidly, justly, and completely.”
“Nursing professionals have become increasingly vocal about the lives that are at stake if we fail to address climate change, and about the impacts on public health with multiple mortalities around the world that they are already seeing – caused by climate change. We welcome the call to fully turn the page on fossil fuels, and are joining the chorus calling for a Treaty to make this happen”, said Pastor Peters Omoragbon, of the Executive President Nurses Across the Borders Humanitarian Initiative, and Convener, UNFCCC HEALTHNGOS Caucus.
“Replacing fossil fuels with sustainable clean energy can bring massive health benefits; these go well beyond reducing the health impacts of climate change”, said Roland Sapsford, CEO of the Climate and Health Alliance in Australia. “Localized solar power can help remote clinics, hospitals, and communities access clean affordable energy. Replacing fossil fuel driven heating and cooking with clean, renewable options can massively improve indoor air quality. Energy efficiency measures can make buildings safer, healthier, and more livable.”
“Around the world, mining, processing and distribution of fossil fuels affects the health of those on low incomes and indigenous communities more than others. Phasing out fossil fuels can improve health for all, while also making our world more equitable”, added Sapsford.
“The burdens and harms caused by our fossil fuel dependence affect us all, but these are not carried equally”, said Katie Huffling, a nurse-midwife and Executive Director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. “Communities and countries with the least historical responsibility for climate change are experiencing its greatest health impacts, while fossil fuel drilling, mining and processing disproportionately take place in low income and disadvantaged communities around the world. Done right, the urgently needed transition to a clean energy future can also be a transition to a more equitable future”.
“We saw twice as many emergency room visits for asthma over two and a half months in 2014, after our subarctic city of Yellowknife was ringed by severe wildfires” said Dr Courtney Howard, Emergency Physician in the subarctic, Co-Chair for advocacy of the WHO-Civil Society Working Group and Past-President of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. “Two years later, the hospital in Fort McMurray – the heart of oil sands country – had to be evacuated due to wildfire. You can still see burned trees from that Emergency Room parking lot. To be healthy, our patients need a stable climate as well as employment that helps them house, feed, and support their families. We need to have conversations with people living in resource-dependent communities to ask fossil fuel workers about what supports they need in order to transition to putting their skills to work in the low-carbon economy that all of our children need for a healthy future”, she continued.
“The same way as the fossil fuels circle affects people’s health, it negatively impacts the health of ecosystems and damages biodiversity, where human health is also sustained”, said Dr. Paola Rava – coordinator of the health and environment working group of CIMF (Confederación Iberoamericana de medicina de familia). “It can lead to the displacement of rural populations, in many cases also to aggression against the indigenous population, and impoverishment of already vulnerable countries. Eliminating fossil fuels will push agro-industrial food production systems, a major source of emissions, towards agro-ecological systems that favor life and health for the entire planet. Let us think for human health, let us act for Planetary Health!”
“Our unhealthy addiction to fossil fuels accelerates global heating and aggravates air pollution, leaving everyone with a huge and growing health bill”, says Anne Stauffer, Deputy Director at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL). “It is high time for decision-makers around the globe to take to heart the health prescription, by rapidly adopting measures to end the production and burning of fossil fuels, including a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty.”
“A just, healthy and rapid transition away from fossil fuels to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources is imperative both for human and planetary health”, said Poornima Prabhakaran, MD, Director of the Centre for Environmental Health at the Public Health Foundation of India. “The entire life cycle of fossil fuels from mining, fracking, combustion and disposal of end products is fraught with health hazards. A fossil fuel non – proliferation treaty will provide critical and timely impetus to our efforts to address air pollution and the climate crisis. Safeguarding the lives and livelihoods of communities involved in coal-mining must also receive due attention”.
“The impact of fossil fuels on health is increasing with millions of families losing their father, mother, sister, brother, son or daughter prematurely”, said Dr Lwando Maki, Public Health Medicine Specialist and Internal Medicine doctor from South Africa. “There is a need for governments globally to look at putting plans to address the use of fossil fuels; these plans will factor in development and economy but there must be an endpoint; no one wants to lose their family due to the impact of fossil fuels.”
Dr Richard Smith, Chair of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, said: “Emergency action is needed to limit global temperature increases, restore biodiversity and protect health. Greenhouse gases produced through the burning of fossil fuels are the main cause of global warming and pollution, with devastating consequences for health. Large-scale, rapid transition away from all fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy will both lower pollution while also slowing down climate change, achieving a double benefit for planetary health. We cannot continue to ignore the problem.”
“It is critical and absolutely urgent to take all steps needed to ensure a rapid cut out of fossil fuels and a shift toward resources that preserve our health and protect us against the detrimental impacts of climate change. Cutting down fossil fuels is never enough and that is why a cut out should be the way forward. The IFMSA believes that our duty of care not only includes the future of our individual patients, but also that of communities locally, nationally and globally. Therefore, the IFMSA acknowledges the direct attribution of human activity, including the fossil fuel industry, to climate change, and the urgent threat climate change poses to global health and, with COP27 in just a few weeks, we call on all relevant stakeholders to rapidly divest from fossil fuels and immediately withdraw fossil subsidies, in order to limit the crisis of climate change to ensure a healthier and sustainable future for all”, said Mohamed Eissa, Liaison Officer for Public Health Issues, International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations, representative Egyptian Medical Students’ Association.
View the letter: Health professionals call for Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to protect lives of current and future generations:
From the letter: Burning fossil fuels presents severe threats to human and planetary health.
- Air pollution, most significantly from burning fossil fuels, is causing more than seven million premature deaths each year. It contributes to cardiovascular disease, respiratory conditions, and cancers. Wildfires, made increasingly intense and common by climate change, add to this burden.
- The climate crisis, largely caused by burning fossil fuels, is a critical health threat, exacerbating other health challenges and threatening health care systems.
- The warming climate creates ideal conditions for the transmission of food and water-borne diseases and spread of vector-borne diseases, undermining decades of progress in global public health.
- Climate change increases the risk of heat related illness and death, especially for very young children, outdoor workers, athletes, and older adults.
- Droughts, floods, extreme weather events and sea level rise caused by climate change disrupt livelihoods, pollute water, jeopordize food security, damage infrastructure and force migration especially for populations living on small islands, coastal regions and low-lying areas.
- Extreme weather events disrupt global medical supply chains and devastate healthcare facilities, severely impacting health workers’ ability to provide health care.
- Climate change is taking a serious toll on mental health, exacerbating anxiety and depression, especially in young people.
From the letter: There are also specific human and occupational health risks associated with every stage of fossil fuel operations including extraction, refining, manufacturing of by-products, transportation, distribution, and disposal of waste products.
- Residential proximity to oil and gas extraction has been found to increase the incidence of respiratory ailments and poor birth outcomes, and is potentially associated with other health harms. Living near coal mines is associated with an increased risk of lung disease and cancers, and weeks lost from school and work. Extraction-related light and noise pollution, water use and pollution, ecosystem degradation, and habitat, livelihood, and community disruption also negatively impact health.
- Proximity to petrochemical refineries, and exposure to facilities manufacturing other fossil fuel-derived products are associated with an increased risk of illnesses including childhood asthma and hematological malignancies.
- Transportation of fossil fuels has a history of spills and explosions with acute and chronic health impacts for nearby communities and cleanup workers.
- Safe disposal of fossil fuel waste products remains a challenge, as waste products contain substances with known health impacts, including heavy metals and toxic chemicals.
- Workers at extractive sites and in refineries face additional unique health risks including severe respiratory diseases and highly malignant forms of cancer, as well as injuries from fires and blasts.
- Communities in proximity to fossil fuel activity are subject to threats and violence, including but not exclusively when they seek to protect their lands, livelihoods and health. The severity and scale of these harms are amplified within Indigenous communities due to their unique linkages to the territories where they live.
 Letter to Health professionals calls for Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to protect lives of current and future generations