Rapid action to limit climate change could result in millions of lives saved each year, according to the World Health Organization, which kicked off a three-day conference on the topic on Wednesday.

“The evidence is overwhelming: climate change endangers human health,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “Solutions exist and we need to act decisively to change this trajectory.”

@WHO chief says the evidence is overwhelming: climate change endangers human health #Climate2014

More than 300 people – including government ministers, heads of UN agencies, city leaders, representatives of civil society and experts in health, climate and sustainable development – attended the conference, the first of its kind, at WHO headquarters in Geneva.
According to WHO, changes in policies governing energy and transportation use would cut air pollution and reduce the incidence of disease stemming from inactivity and traffic injury.

“Previously unrecognized health benefits could be obtained from fast action to reduce climate change and its consequences,” said the WHO statement, which noted climate change’s wide-ranging effects on air quality, water quality and availability, food and shelter.

Global warming was causing more than 140,000 excess deaths each year by 2004, according to a WHO estimate. The causes included shifting patterns of disease; extreme weather events, such as heat-waves and floods; the degradation of water supplies and sanitation; and impacts on agriculture, it said.
“Vulnerable populations, the poor, the disadvantaged and children are among those suffering the greatest burden of climate-related impacts and consequent diseases, such as malaria, diarrhea and malnutrition, which already kill millions every year,” said Dr. Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General, Family, Women’s and Children’s Health. “Without effective action to mitigate and adapt to the adverse effects of climate change on health, society will face one of its most serious health challenges.”

The problem is growing: diarrheal diseases, malnutrition, malaria and dengue are all expected to worsen as climate changes grow more severe.

The poor tend to get hit the hardest. People in developing countries and other areas with weak health infrastructure will be least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond, it said.

The meeting comes less than a month before UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is to host a Summit on Climate Change at UN Headquarters in New York. It is to be attended by more than 100 heads of state and government along with leaders from business, finance and civil society.

“Our focus will be climate, health and jobs,” Ban said in a video address shown to conference participants. “I appeal to you to make the case for governments to adopt and promote clean, low-carbon energy. This is the only option for a healthy future and a life of dignity for all.”