Research, Policy & Global Development, Urban Planning, Environment and Health

Maria Neira: “The Climate Change Agreement is Also a Major Public Health Treaty”

During a lecture at ISGlobal, the Director of Public Health and Environment at WHO shared her views on how to translate scientific evidence into public health policies


“The Climate Change agreement signed in Paris last June is not only about protecting the environment, it is also about health”, declared Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health and Environment in WHO, during an informal but inspiring lecture she delivered at ISGlobal.

Along her talk, she stressed the need to shift priorities and resources once again from disease treatment to primary prevention in order to decrease the costs of chronic non-communicable diseases. Currently, 97% of total resources are allocated to health care expenditure versus only 3% for prevention.  “My dream” she said “is a 90/10 ratio. Public health goes beyond treating the patient; we need to make sure he/she does not get sick”.

In this sense, the Climate Change Agreement signed in Paris and the recently approved Sustainable Development Goals are key for disease prevention. For example, the clean energy goal would help reduce the 7 million deaths related to air pollution every year.  “For 12 years” she continued “we have been trying to introduce the health argument in climate change negotiations”.  

The scientific evidence is there: climate change will affect access to food, water, energy and shelter. “The question now is how we can influence the political agenda” she continued.  For this, there are no magical solutions, but public health experts need to raise their voice, change their language and build pressure by allying with citizens, use health arguments, and talk and work with mayors of major cities that concentrate more than 50% of the world population. “We have to give policy makers the tools to decide what interventions are needed, how to prioritize them, how to quantify the health benefits, and how to communicate them to the citizens”, she concluded.

An encouraging sign, she pointed out, is that the next COP scheduled in Morocco in November of this year will place health at the center of the environment agenda.

About Maria Neira

Maria Neira studied Medicine in Oviedo University and specialized in endocrinology in France. She worked with MSF in Central America and in Africa with the UN and with WHO as director of the Department of Prevention and Erradication of Infectious Diseases. After a period as director of the Spanish Agency for Food Security, she continued her work with WHO as director of the Department of Public Health and Environment. She played a key role during the UN Climate Summit in 2014 and in setting the health agenda of the COP21 in Paris.

VIDEO: Talking to Maria Neira