Wetin concern Nigeria and climate change? (how does climate change concern Nigeria?) This was a post shared on the social networking site X on the very same day that the Conference of the Parties (COP) held a full day dedicated to climate change and health, as part of its 28th convening in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). This culminated in 120 countries signing a COP28 UAE Climate and Health Declaration.
Perhaps, we should not blame the person that shared the message. Many people are yet to understand the link between the effects of climate change and their daily lives. It is as if the consequences of rising temperatures and extreme weather events are an abstract phenomenon, far removed from the ordinary. The reality of Nigeria now is that people are struggling with so many existential day-to-day challenges, that are far more present for them, that worrying about the future is difficult.
This is all despite the increasingly evident signs of the impact of climate change, such as changing weather patterns and ecological transformations. It is not news Nigeria is experiencing increase in floods and rapid desertification, but they are not often tied to climate change. This clear gap in understanding has resulted in a lack of urgency in tackling the effects of climate change, creating a sense of detachment between climate change discussions and the impact on everyday life. The most visible way for people to understand the direct link between climate change and health is through the impact of climate change on human health.
Mentioning the melting of ice caps melting or rising temperatures in the Sahel appears too distant, if not abstract. But the impact on health is probably the clearest way of describing the impact of climate change for us in Nigeria- ,“health is the human face of climate change”.
The impacts of climate change on human health are diverse and often works through different mechanisms.
The impact of climate change on health highlights the increased sense of urgency surrounding the COP28 health day, which was the first time a day was solely devoted to health in the 28 years of COP. However, how do we make a compelling case to policymakers regarding the impact of climate change on health? If we read the numerous news stories in Nigeria about COP28, the distracted focus on the size of the Nigerian delegation deprived us of the opportunity to focus on the existential threat that we face from climate change, especially as it relates to population health.
Nigeria is projected to become the third most populous country in the world by 2050. This has implications on the well-being of the population, especially given rapid urbanisation, which is putting additional strain on the country’s already overstretched health facilities, which are also increasingly facing a dwindling health workforce due to increased migration.
Health discussions and environmental commitments
The inclusion of health on the COP28 agenda is definitely a step in the right direction. Many decisions about climate financing, developing mitigation and adaptation strategies were at the heart of negotiations by world leaders. As a result, it was vital that decision-makers fully acknowledge that their actions would have an impact on population health. Mitigation strategies can help to reduce negative health outcomes.
To achieve this, we must cut pollution, and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Port Harcourt in southern Nigeria has been facing extremely high levels of environmental pollution, as a result of the “gas flaring” and local crude oil refinement. It is worth noting that one of the outcomes for Nigeria from COP28 was President Tinubu’s commitment that Nigeria would end glass flaring “we are committed to critical steps to reduce methane emissions by ensuring flared gas are eliminated”. If this pledge is followed through, it would have a positive impact on health in areas of Nigeria where environmental pollution is contributing to respiratory infections, heart disease and cardiovascular disease.
Health missing in the Climate Change Bill
In November 2021, President Buhari signed the Climate Change Bill into law. The Climate Change Act 2021 established a National Council on Climate Change with the mandate to develop policies regarding climate change in Nigeria, as well as the establishment of a climate change fund. The membership of the council includes representatives from Ministries, Departments and Agencies, as well as a representative from the private sector. The health effects of climate change are briefly mentioned in relation to private entities being fined for failing to meet carbon emissions targets. However, the accountability and enforcement criteria for private entities that do not meet the targets has not been specified.
In a similar way, during the Africa Climate Summit, leaders signing the Nairobi Declaration, pledging to find sustainable solutions to the climate change challenges. Discussions focused on a carbon taxation regime and leveraging other financial tools to finance “climate positive investments”. The implications of climate change on health have simply not been incorporated in policies or climate change trackers. Because of the void, low-income countries like Nigeria and local communities have had to contend with the increased occurrence of climate-sensitive diseases and water-borne diseases like cholera, which is exacerbated by flooding.
Addressing the climate-health nexus
During a side event organised by Devex at the 76th World Health Assembly, discussions about preparing countries for the climate impacts on health saw countries share their experiences. It was clear that discussions focusing on implementing policies to respond to climate change often did not include ministries of health in committees. The focus was therefore on the environmental consequences of climate change. As a result, health and climate were not being discussed simultaneously, therefore limiting a broader discussion that would have taken a One Health approach.
By elevating the implications of climate change on health, the objective is to influence policy at the national and local level. It is clear that action needs to be taken to mitigate the effects of climate change. The cost of inaction is too high, and progress needs to be tracked in terms of the number of lives saved and not just reductions in Celsius. This is a moment for health leadership, where appropriate policies are developed.
However, it will require ensuring that leaders understand the inherent link between climate and health, with the use of language that minimises the barrier to understanding the direct link between climate change and health. Responding to climate change will require a multi-sectoral approach to adaptation and mitigation, with the implementation of climate and health in all policies.