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July 18, 2024

Viewpoint: Conference acknowledges links between global warming and health

Panelists take part in COP28 climate conference in Dubai. Dec. 5 screen image from Democracy Now!
December 19, 2023

A local doctor attends the U.N.’s COP28 summit in Dubai and comes away hopeful of positive change

By Gayle Kouklis

I am first and foremost an emergency room doctor. I regularly see patients whose health conditions are directly related to interactions with their environment, which is why I’ve chosen to split my time in the emergency room with time learning more about the climate crisis.

This month I was fortunate to attend COP28 climate summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The conclusion of the United Nations’ yearly international climate conference brought many criticisms. Despite this, I left hopeful. As a climate physician, what I thought stood out most was the summit’s first-ever Health Day. For many in attendance, this was the first time they made the connection between medical illness and climate change. Health is a common language that we all speak, and the multifaceted threats that climate change poses to it are simultaneously uniquely personal and absolutely universal.

Every day of the Conference of Parties was overwhelming. I’d wake up, go for a run, admire the Christmas decorations adorning the hotel in the desert, then hop on the metro with tens of thousands of people from across the planet. Together, we’d navigate TSA-esque security lines into the Dubai Expo Center, each with our own agenda to get through hundreds of scheduled talks (what I would have given for Hermione’s time-turner from the Harry Potter books to see more and learn more).

Often fueled only by a blackberry lemonade popsicle and a coffee, I wandered back and forth between the World Health Organization pavilion and a host of non-health-related pavilions. Throughout the week, I met a lawyer from Ukraine, a glaciologist from Nepal, a youth activist from Iceland, a family physician from Uruguay, a musician from China and many others, all there with a like-minded goal: to influence party members from around the world to reach an agreement in line with limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Since the release of the official documents there has been some disappointment in the final language, but there are several silver linings. For the first time in 28 years, the term “fossil fuels” is included. There has been a loss and damages fund created to support the low- and middle-income countries most affected by climate change.

But mostly, I left knowing that nearly 100,000 people across the planet care enough about improving the world to travel halfway around the globe, to wake up early and stay up late, to get excited about each other’s work and look for lines of collaboration. And importantly, I left knowing that each of those people will go home to their communities to carry forward this sense of hope, to continue to engage with local, state, provincial, tribal, and national efforts to reach our goal of a safer, healthier home planet.

And herein lies our power: Each of us has a skill and a perspective to bring to this conversation. Together we can move the needle toward a greener, healthier planet. All you have to do is show up.

Gayle Kouklis, M.D., is an emergency physician completing a fellowship through University of Colorado in climate change and health science policy. She is from a small town in rural Northern California and did her residency training at the UCSF Fresno. She resides in the Rogue River Valley and works as an ER doctor.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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