Nurse union leaders worldwide demand government action on health impacts of climate crisis

Submitted by ADonahue on
Zoom call with nurse representatives from around the world.

By Michelle Morris

National Nurse magazine - Oct | Nov | Dec 2023 Issue

At a late November briefing for members of the global press, Global Nurses United (GNU), the premier federation of global nurses unions, released a statement urging governments to take action against the health impacts of climate change, in advance of international climate negotiations at COP28, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, held this year in the United Arab Emirates from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12.  

The briefing, which featured nurse union leaders from Brazil, Burundi, Canada, India, Italy, and the United States, culminated in the release of a five-point plan entitled Global Nurses’ Proposal to Address the Health Impacts of Climate Change, an outline of nurse demands on governments to mitigate the climate crisis and increase health care systems’ preparedness. The plan calls on governments to do five things: 

Mitigate the climate crisis by phasing out both the production and consumption of fossil fuels and rapidly reducing global carbon emissions;   

Bolster health and emergency infrastructure by ensuring all hospitals and health care facilities will continue to operate in the face of climate disasters and are resilient to future extreme weather events; 

Protect global public health in the face of rising temperatures and increased disease transmission by safeguarding the public from the health impacts of climate change; 

Support frontline nurses and other health care workers in the face of disasters by ensuring they are prepared to handle extreme weather events and care for patients affected by a rapidly warming climate; and 

Ensure that all relevant stakeholders are consulted in the development of climate and health care preparedness programs. 

Nursing is a global profession premised on identifying and solving public health problems across the world through international collaboration, the sharing of nursing knowledge, and equitable distribution of health care resources. The climate crisis is accelerating disease transmission, air pollution, crop losses, and global migration as regions become inhospitable to human survival. Nurses around the world are already responding to the public health impacts of this crisis: increased risks of heat stroke, physical injury, malnutrition, exposure to infectious diseases, as well as health impacts from displacement and exposure to conflict.  

“Every extreme weather event has shown us nurses that our health care system is not prepared to handle the impacts of climate change,” said Jean Ross, RN and president of National Nurses United in the United States. “We need our governments to mitigate the severity of the climate crisis by phasing out the fossil fuels that have caused this crisis, and we need governments to take urgent steps to prepare our health care systems, so that we are prepared to handle the health impacts that we are already seeing from climate events.”  

“The Federation aligns with GNU's vision of promoting actions that ensure the protection of our profession and the resilience of health systems in the face of growing environmental threats,” said Solange Caetano, president of Brazil’s National Federation of Nurses. “We are aware of the link between the well-being of the planet and the health of communities, and it is critical that action is taken to address this global crisis." 

“Nurses around the world are on the front line in the fight against global pandemics and the health effects of the climate crisis,” said Mélance Hakizimana, national president of SYNAPA (Syndicat National du Personnel Paramédical et d'Appui de la Santé Publique) of Burundi. “This means that the response to any health crisis must absolutely involve frontline staff, including nurses.” 

“Canada’s nurses continue sounding the alarm on climate change and its many impacts on the health of our planet and patients,” said Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses. “We stand firmly with GNU in calling on our political leaders to commit to bold action on climate change and health at COP28. “ 

“India’s inadequate health system makes our population particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate risk on health,” said Jibin Theerthakkuzhi Chalil, state president and national working secretary of India’s United Nurses Association. “Climate change directly affects health, causing more sickness and death throughout our country.” 

“Training more nurses means equipping ourselves with a strategic resource to face the challenging effects of the climate crisis,” said Andrea Bottega, national secretary of NurSIND in Italy. “It means being able to strengthen health structures and emergency systems that respond promptly in the event of climate disasters and guarantee the continuity of health services.”

Michelle Morris is a communications specialist at National Nurses United.