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Kate Otto

Kate Otto

Posted: November 30, 2010 05:30 PM

As an American and public health professional, I have not always felt proud of the traditions that follow our Thanksgiving feast: the consumption of pounds of leftovers and the slipping of healthy eating habits at holiday parties; the chaos of consumer stress teeming at pre-dawn Black Friday shopping extravaganzas; the mind-numbing non-stop Christmas playlists overwhelming the radio waves.

But there is one particular tradition that shines a bright light into the winter season ahead: the annual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Held every year just after Turkey Day -- and this year in Cancun from November 29 -- December 10 -- this Convention is a congregation of environmental activists, civil society leaders, and policy makers from around the world who negotiate the legislative changes that will protect our environment, and consequently, protect humankind.

For anyone who missed Al Gore's eye-opening documentary on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth or Prince Charles' similarly themed Harmony, it has become clear that our global track record on planet protection has been lamentable over the past few decades. (Additionally, this powerful video clip from the Natural Resources Defense Council gives a quick catch-up on the mess we have created thus far.)

There is certainly enough evidence on hand to prove the threats true, particularly from a public health perspective. Health of high-income country citizens will certainly suffer from heat waves, flooding, and air pollution, and the damage of disasters like Katrina can be crippling. But consider also, for example, the millions of farmers in low-income countries who have no subsidies or welfare from their government. Heavy rains, droughts, and extreme temperatures can mean no harvest, and no harvest means not only no health care, but a struggle to survive in already challenging circumstances.

It is also certainly not the case that no political efforts have been attempted: The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has been ratified by every member nation of the UN, and additionally, 190 have ratified the Kyoto Protocol (those who have not ratified include Afghanistan, Somalia, and -- you got it -- the USA). A recent blog post by the Center for Global Development also reports that "More than 80 percent of World Bank client countries have requested support for climate activities -- up from 10 percent a decade ago, and the bank is now active on climate in 130 countries." Governments -- at least symbolically -- are on board.

Yet paradoxically, as scientific evidence and government signatures pile up to convince citizens to protect our environment, there appears to be an insufficient response from civil society. Why is it that a majority of the global public still does not act on their articulated role?

At the crux of the challenge behind fighting climate change is not so much garnering political support or finding evidence-based solutions -- both already abound -- it is in learning to overcome the very instinctual human habit of doubt: doubting the disaster will ever come until it has, and doubting we can make a difference because our impact is impossible to visualize. And spurring that doubt are a growing crop of policy makers like Darrell Issa, profiled recently in the New Yorker, as a Republican representative poised to become Chairman of the Oversight Committee, who last year quoted Genesis at a congressional hearing to dismiss the dangers of climate change, "As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease... I believe that's the infallible word of God, and that's the way it's going to be for His creation."

Reversing climate change sounds, to me, a lot like trying to overcome HIV/AIDS -- at the heart of the struggle is psychology and politics: changing the behavior of individuals who feel untouched by an issue, changing the behavior of politicians who have electoral incentives to encourage destructive behavior.

But some of the best solutions I have witnessed in public health come from galvanizing civil society to take responsibility in their own lives first. And this year's Convention Youth Delegates from the United States ("SustainUS Agents of Change") seem to agree: they are involving as many individuals as possible in participation at the Convention as "Rapid Responders," and you can join them.

Joining the "Rapid Response Network," gives you a way to hold your government officials responsible for following through on policy promises that will help to shape our human behavior in the right direction. Responders will be briefed periodically as the negotiations develop at the Convention, and receive recommendations for action: calling a Senator, writing an Op-Ed, organizing informational gatherings with friends and family. No action is required, but the wall between Convention Delegates and those unable to attend is effectively broken down, meaning there are no excuses to not be part of the high-level meeting. Sign up today, here.

I may never label myself explicitly as an environmentalist, but my work in public health -- and my privileged status as an American alone (check yours) -- provide me with more than enough motivation to be involved in climate change. As a Responder, I can translate my concern into meaningful, organized action.

As for Americans still unconvinced on the need to take action, I echo the words of SustainUS Agent of Change Giselle Sebag: "It seems unreasonable to annihilate the base of the pyramid when you are balancing on the top."

 

Follow Kate Otto on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kateotto