A Mursi boy suffering from Malaria in Ethiopia's Omo Valley. With warming, the range of malaria-carrying mosquitos will extend up into the Highlands. Photo: Rod Waddington via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
Court orders Dutch government to cut emissions, as doctors warn of health catastrophe
25th June 2015
In a landmark ruling, judges have ordered the Netherlands to do more to tackle the 'imminent danger' of climate change. Meanwhile an expert commission reports of an impending global health breakdown from unmitigated global warming.
Climate change is a medical emergency. Under such circumstances, no doctor would consider a series of annual case discussions and aspirations adequate, yet this is exactly how the global response to climate change is proceeding.
A Dutch court has made history by ordering the Netherlands government to make deeper than planned for cuts in its emissions of greenhouse gases.
In its landmark legal requirement that a state should take precautions against climate change, the district court in The Hague said the government must "do more to avert the imminent danger caused by climate change."
The court ruled that the Netherlands should, by 2020, reduce its CO2 emissions by at least 25% on their 1990 levels. The government is planning cuts of around 16%, but Denmark and Germany are already on course to cut their CO2 emissions by 40% by 2020.
The case was brought by the Urgenda Foundation - an NGO focused on the transition towards a sustainable society using only renewable energy - and nearly 900 co-plaintiffs.
Marjan Minnesma, director of Urgenda, said: "Millions of people who are already suffering the consequences of climate change are hoping that we, the people that have caused the emissions and have the means to reduce them, will intervene while there is still time."
Next, Belgium, Norway, the Philippines and Peru
Urgenda says its arguments are supported by the Oslo Principles, which say that states have the legal obligation to avert dangerous climate change. Comparable legal cases are being prepared in Belgium, Norway, the Philippines and Peru.
Carroll Muffett, the president and CEO of the Centre for International Environmental Law, said: "At the heart of this landmark case lies a simple, terrible truth: in failing to take ambitious action to confront climate change, the government of the Netherlands is threatening the lives, the well-being and the human rights of its own citizens."
"The case reflects a growing awareness among people worldwide that the failure to act on climate change violates fundamental principles of human rights."
"A decision of this kind from any court sends an important signal. States and polluters should take careful note. There is a growing movement of climate litigation around the world, a challenge to inertia. Climate change cannot wait."
Some thought the court had not gone far enough. Wendel Trio, director of Climate Action Network Europe, said: "The task specified by the ruling is not too challenging. The target should be much higher than 25% in order to be truly in line with what is needed to tackle climate change."
However, Professor Muffett thinks the judgement will be hugely influential. He said: "Governments, especially in Europe, will be going to the UN's Paris climate negotiations in December very cognisant of what this court has said. The context on the road to Paris is changing fast."
50 years of health advances may be lost unless we confront climate change.
In another development this week, an international commission of medical experts has stated that climate change could undermine the last half-century of gains in development and global health.
Writing in The Lancet medical journal, the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change says the potentially catastrophic risk to human health posed by climate change has been underestimated.
But they add that many responses to climate change have direct and indirect health benefits - from reducing air pollution to improving diet - and so efforts to reduce the threat offer an unparalleled chance for far-reaching gains in health.
This means that international efforts to tackle climate change - "the defining challenge of our generation" - also represent one of the greatest opportunities to improve health worldwide this century. But while the technologies and finance required to address the problem do exist, the global political will to implement them is lacking.
Professor Hugh Montgomery, one of the commission's co-chairs and director of the University College London (UCL) Institute for Human Health and Performance, UK, says:
"Climate change is a medical emergency. It thus demands an emergency response, using the technologies available right now. Under such circumstances, no doctor would consider a series of annual case discussions and aspirations adequate, yet this is exactly how the global response to climate change is proceeding."
A fearful combination of direct and indirect impacts
Professor Anthony Costello, another of the commission's co-chairs and director of the UCL Institute for Global Health, says:
"Climate change has the potential to reverse the health gains from economic development that have been made in recent decades - not just through the direct effects on health from a changing and more unstable climate, but through indirect means such as increased migration and reduced social stability."
The report says the direct health impacts of climate change come from the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, especially heatwaves, floods, droughts and storms. Indirect impacts result from changes in infectious disease patterns, air pollution, food insecurity and malnutrition, involuntary migration, displacement and conflicts.
The commission is an extensive collaboration between experts from Europe and China. Its other co-chair, Professor Peng Gong, from Tsinghua University, Beijing, says: "The health community has responded to many grave threats to health in the past.
"It took on entrenched interests such as the tobacco industry, and led the fight against HIV/AIDS. Now is the time for us to lead the way in responding to another great threat to the human and environmental health of our generation."
Alex Kirby wites for Climate News Network.
The report: 'Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health' is published in The Lancet.
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