BONN, Germany (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Arnold Schwarzenegger, former California governor and Hollywood actor and film producer, issued a challenge on Sunday to governments to start labeling fossil fuels with a public health warning that their use could cause illness and death.
He lauded the World Health Organization (WHO) for sealing a 164-nation tobacco control pact in 2003 that led to consumers of cigarettes and cigars being alerted to the health risks of smoking, including lung cancer.
A similar accord could be put in place for products derived from fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which emit planet-warming gases when burned, said the politician and environmental activist.
“Wouldn’t it be great now if they could... make the same pact with the rest of the world to go and say, ‘Let’s label another thing that is killing you - which is fossil fuels,'” he said to applause on the sidelines of U.N. climate talks in Bonn.
Schwarzenegger suggested telling customers at petrol stations that “what you pump into your tank may kill you”, and plastering oil tankers driving along highways with messages that their contents are dangerous to health.
“Here’s a challenge for you guys,” he said, directly addressing WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who spoke at the same event.
Schwarzenegger lamented that environmental pollution - estimated to kill more than 9 million people per year in all its forms - was rarely discussed at conferences on climate change. About two-thirds of those deaths are from air pollution.
“This is a massive tragedy - and as depressing and terrifying as it is, we are not talking about it enough,” he said.
In his own political career, his campaign team found that talking about polar bears or degrees of temperature rise was not an effective way to communicate the threat of climate change to the public. But running adverts saying that air pollution killed and gave children breathing problems worked, he said.
Over the 12 days of the climate change conference in Germany, presided over by Fiji, more than 300,000 people would die from harmful substances in their environment, he noted.
Patricia Espinosa, head of the U.N. climate change secretariat, said climate change needed to be addressed from a broader view “that directly connects human health with the health of the planet”.
Besides deaths caused by respiratory diseases from burning fossil fuels, global warming is harming coral reefs and fish supplies, causing hunger and poverty. Elsewhere, higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are reducing the nutritional content of crops, putting hundreds of millions of people at risk from vitamin deficiencies, she said.
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama underscored the damage done to health facilities in his small island state from extreme weather, including powerful Cyclone Winston, which caused 44 deaths and wiped out over a third of the nation’s GDP last year.
He stressed the importance of investing in infrastructure to make health systems stronger and more agile in the face of growing disaster threats as global warming brings wilder weather and rising seas.
Although the 2016 cyclone damaged health facilities, Fiji is now building new hospitals and clinics, and reinforcing existing ones, he said.
But to do this requires funding, he added, noting that only a tiny fraction of climate finance is allocated for measures to protect health, and small island developing states “will see only a small part of that”.
An initiative launched on Sunday by the WHO, the U.N. climate secretariat and Fiji aims to triple international financial support for action on climate-related health issues in small island developing states. Its main goal is to ensure health systems are resilient to climate change by 2030.
“Climate change is not a political argument in Fiji and other island nations - it’s everyday reality,” whether that’s in the form of destructive storms, rising sea levels or increased risk of infectious disease, said Ghebreyesus, the WHO chief.
“These communities need assistance to cope with a world that is changing in front of them,” he said.
Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate