Climate change is a central issue at this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), with multiple high-level meetings on the issue happening amid several devastating natural disasters. Hurricane Irma recently swept through the Caribbean and into Florida, only to be quickly followed by Hurricane Maria.
“Climate change casts a long shadow over the development efforts of our country,” said Darren Henfield, the minster of foreign affairs of the Bahamas, during a UNGA meeting on Hurricane Irma. “The implications of rising sea levels and atmospheric temperatures signal dire consequences for low-lying island states like the Bahamas.” Henfield said that the costs of rebuilding after Irma will be “exorbitant, in the tens of millions,” and he estimates similar damage related to Hurricane Maria.
The impact of climate change on global health is also becoming increasingly clear. At the end of last week, the United Nations released a report showing that global hunger is on the rise; 38 million more people were affected in 2016 than in 2015. Climate change and the spread of violent conflicts are responsible, the report says. Other research has linked climate change to increased respiratory problems, poor nutrition, the spread of infectious disease and even anxiety.
Leaders at the UN say that while more countries are explicitly calling out these risks to health now than in the past, there’s still more work to do. “I think it’s clear quite a few countries, particularly in the developing world where air pollution is high, see that there is an opportunity to reduce climate change and improve health,” said Nick Nuttall, spokesperson for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) during an interview Wednesday. “But the issue still has a ways to go.”
The recent tragic weather events have provided an opening for those conversations. “These hurricane or flooding events have huge implications for water quality,” says Nuttall, citing the risk for things like sewage and other chemicals to get into floodwater and spread. The risk for mosquito-borne diseases ranging from dengue fever to Zika can increase as floods recede, leaving breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other insects.
“Major health benefits come from acting on climate change, both direct and indirect,” says Nuttall. Preventing deforestation limits flooding, which cuts back on the number of pests like mosquitoes that can accumulate and spread diseases, he says.
The issue affects the oceans, as well. “If we lose our coral reefs, we lose revenue for countries, but also fish, which is an important source of protein,” says Nuttall.
Climate change has been a popular subject at this year’s UNGA, and many leaders have publicly reaffirmed their commitment to tackling the problem. But the U.S.’s position on the issue has changed from last year. In June, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Other U.S. leaders, including California governor Jerry Brown and former vice president Al Gore, took part in UNGA meetings about climate change and assured attendees that other leaders are still addressing the issue.
“We are a country of diverse power centers, and mobilizing those power centers that are not controlled by the President is still a very worthwhile goal and very powerful,” said Brown during a high-level stakeholder meeting on climate change on Monday. “Mayors, governors, presidents and CEOs of companies: they have real power.”
“It would be great if the President would join in the movement,” Brown said, but “he’s not there yet. He believes this whole thing we’re talking about, all the scientists publishing thousands of papers, is all a hoax.”
There are signs that UN leaders are open to engaging with other leaders beyond the U.S. federal government. “The decision [by the U.S.] to withdraw was disappointing for many, including people in the United States,” says Nuttall. “But so many people are moving on this.”
“Now, time is the constraining factor,” he adds. “We need to move very, very fast.”