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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Wisconsinites take on climate change at UN conference, shine a light on human health impacts

UW-Madison PhD student Nova Tebbe and distinguished health and the environment professor Jonathan Patz in Dubai.
Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters screenshot
UW-Madison PhD student Nova Tebbe and distinguished health and the environment professor Jonathan Patz in Dubai.

Some Wisconsinites are among the more than 70,000 people trying to address the climate crisis at the annual UN climate change conference.

 This year’s event, called COP28, is being held in Dubai.

It’s gathered business leaders, climate scientists, Indigenous peoples and other stakeholders for the world’s only multilateral decision-making forum on climate change.

One of the Wisconsinites on the COP28 scene is Jonathan Patz. He served as inaugural director of the Global Health Institute at UW-Madison and was lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Patz has spent decades trying to convince decision makers that human health is inextricably linked with climate change.

“We’ve been trying to have people understand that there are so many climate sensitive diseases and climate-related health outcomes that climate change really threatens human health,” he says.

In fact recently, Patz says the scientific world learned the situation is even more urgent than they realized.

“Last Wednesday, a new study came out from some of the best air pollution epidemiologists in the world that showed we’ve been underestimating it. This study published in the British Medical Journal found that over 5 million deaths can be attributed to fossil fuel-related air pollution, 60% of all air pollution and that’s more than we had realized before,” Patz says.

This does not mark Patz’s first COP, but the gathering in Dubai marks the first time an entire day was dedicated to health.

"That is so exciting for me and now with than 120 countries signing on to the health declaration and recognizing that indeed human health is core to the discussion; that it is absolutely necessary for health ministers to now get together with environment ministers, energy ministers and others and take a full-sector 'health in all policies' approach,” he says.

UW-Madison PhD student Nova Tebbe is also in Dubai, tracking something else that’s never before happened at a COP. Eight years ago, countries that signed on to the Paris climate accord made certain promises — what they would do to address climate change.

 Tebbe says now it’s time to assess progress through what’s called the global stocktake.

 “We’ve looked at the progress made since the Paris Agreement in 2015: What do we do now? Are we meeting the goal? Are we close to meeting the goal? What do we need to do for future emissions targets? And that’s all happening at COP28 and that’s what I’m following," she explains.

 Tebbe says it’s the culmination of a two year process — first technical, followed by political.

"So the technical phase ended in June during the Bonn meeting. Now is the time to say, 'We’ve taken all this information, we have an idea of what the progress is, where we need to go forward.' COP28 now the political phase — what are we going to do about it? In other words, if the technical part is the report card of the Paris Agreement, COP28 is the parent-teacher conference where we figure out what’s next,” she says.

Neither Tebbe nor Patz is looking at the existential threats posed by climate change playing out around the world through rose-colored glasses. Patz says you have only to look the world’s most vulnerable areas — from island nations losing land to rising sea levels to mountain nations with rapidly disappearing glaciers.

He says it’s going to take a groundswell to shift the climate trajectory.

Patz’s recommendation drive less, ride a bike or take the bus, consume less, but don’t stop there. “Join groups, add your voice to be amplified. I think the youth movement is fantastic,” he adds.

PhD student Nova Tebbe says she can hardly believe she’s at COP28. Being there, she says will help her figure out what she needs to do next when she gets home.

 COP28 runs until December 12. By that time, organizers hope to identify pathways for the international community to unite around more expansive and urgent climate action.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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