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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Public Health, Climate Change and Strategic Litigation

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Public Health, Climate Change and Strategic Litigation

Mosquitoes fly north across Europe bringing dengue fever. Floods and drownings. Heat stress. Despair. We are all aware of the health impacts of climate change. But how do we get governments to act? The pressure of the polls (in democracies) does not guarantee results, as short-term concerns distract attention from our overheated planet. There are no easy answers, but the experience of the environmental movement provides clues and inspiration.

On October 7, the School of Public Health co-organized a webinar on Public Health, Climate Change and Strategic Litigation (recording now available online). Its goal was to alert academics and public health professionals to opportunities for legal action to hold governments and private sector polluters to account for health-damaging pollution and climate change.

Moderated by Dr. Farhang Tahzib, the webinar attracted more than 800 registrations from around the world. Starting close to home, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah recounted how air pollution in London led to the death of her daughter, Ella. Sir Stephen Holgate gave expert coronary investigation testimony into Ella’s death. He noted that air pollution is now largely invisible and therefore neglected; however, “breathing clean air is a right, just as we have the right to drinking water.” Dr Maria Neira, WHO health and climate change advocate, presented the ‘health case for climate action’ that WHO will bring to CoP26.

But governments have long been aware of the short-term and long-term health effects of pollution. What else can be done? Strategic alliances between public health actors, environmental activists, and academics and legal professionals are using court action to highlight government inaction and industry abuses. Marlies Hesselman, a professor at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, gave a ten-minute ‘strategic litigation 101’, pointing to four recent and current cases in which governments have been called to answer before international courts and tribunals for damage to health. related to climate change. Irmina Kotiuk, Senior Counsel for Client Earth’s Clean Air Program, noted the enormous role of public health specialists as experts in strategic litigation, drawing on the experience of tobacco and asbestos. He urged nurses and doctors to collect and record evidence in medical files that can then be used in expert testimony.

Richard Harvey, an attorney and legal adviser for Greenpeace, drew parallels between the now infamous denials by tobacco companies of the link between smoking and ill health, and the current turn by fossil fuel companies. The Dutch Supreme Court was not fooled, in a 2019 landmark decision ordered Shell to reduce CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030, globally. Dra. Marina Romanello, research director of Lancet Countdown reiterated the health impacts of climate change and the continued financing of the destruction of our health through subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.

However the Lancet Countdown Report 2021 on health and climate change: code red for a healthy future, makes no reference to the role of the law (apart from the International Health Regulations), let alone the hundreds of current and recent legal cases on climate change alone, easily searchable through online databases. Repeating the problem in greater detail is not a strategy for change. We need to combine the credibility of solid science with the legal skills of seasoned national and international litigants and the experience in social mobilization tried and tested by other social movements, all adapted to today’s limited world of COVID-19 online. Dr. Neira commented that “people who work in the environment say that we need to hear more from the public health community, because you are still trusted, politicians will listen.”

Bridges between the public health, environmental and legal communities must be strengthened if we are to ‘keep 1.5 alive’. The October 7 webinar was co-hosted by the Groningen Global Health Law Research Center and the sections ‘law and public health’, ‘environment and health’ and ‘ethics and public health’ of the European Public Health Association. Membership of the section is free and is not limited to public health professionals or people residing in Europe.

David Patterson LLM. MSc.
Doctor. Candidate
Groningen Global Health Law Research Center

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