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Health in Jeopardy: the Corporate Influence on Climate Negotiations

Alicia Pawluk argues that United Nations climate policymakers should learn from the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and diminish the influence of fossil-fuel producers in climate talks.  

Image Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project
Image Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project

The health impacts of climate change will undoubtedly be the most pressing global health issue of the upcoming century. Rising sea levels, warmer global temperatures, and extreme weather events will all have a widespread global effect. International governmental measures must be taken to minimise the damage caused by these phenomena, and to mitigate future health disasters. The United Nations is striving towards global climate solutions but significant intrusions at international climate negotiations have hindered any progress.

Last year’s UN Climate Talks in Warsaw (Conference of Parties 19) set a new precedent for climate negotiations.  Unfortunately, instead of progressing towards global consensus on climate action, COP 19 stood out for more ominous reasons. Among the diplomats, climate scientists, and civil society participants was the overwhelming presence of fossil-fuel-intensive industries.  A majority of the sponsorship of the COP came from companies which benefit considerably from fossil-fuels, raising questions about the place of the fossil-fuel industry in climate negotiations.  The official corporate partners, including Alstom, the Polish fossil fuel companies PGE and LOTOS, ArcelorMittal, BMW, General Motors and Emirates Airlines, are hardly ‘leading the way’ on sustainability.

Shortly after a Climate and Health Summit – organised by the newly-formed Global Climate and Health Alliance – the Polish government held a concurrent ‘International Coal and Climate Summit’, sponsored by the World Coal Association, which is – to all intents and purposes – a coal industry lobby group.

Although the UN Global Compact has released a ‘Guide for Responsible Corporate Engagement in Climate Policy’ (in cooperation with the UNFCCC), it is woefully inadequate.  In light of the international devastation that climate change will cause, particularly to health, it is not nearly enough to suggest voluntary guidelines for corporate lobbyists.  Climate negotiations tend to be lengthy, complicated, and politically-fueled at the best of times.  Arguably, the influence of fossil fuel companies at the national level is an important reason for the lack of progress towards an effective deal: allowing their presence and sponsorship at the international level is a sure-fire way to undermine trust and hinder progress in the negotiations.

Those in public health will recognise that this is not a new situation for the United Nations. In Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the UN and the World Health Organisation took significant steps to prevent the undue influence of big tobacco on tobacco control legislation and its implementation. The underlying principle upon which the Article builds is that tobacco is a dangerous substance, and companies that promote its use have no place in the health negotiations.  The report states that ‘there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests.’  Thanks in part to this measure, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) was adopted in 2003 and put into force in 2005, and 177 countries have since ratified the document – making it one of the most quickly ratified treaties in UN history.

The similarities between tobacco and fossil fuels are striking.  As the recent IPCC report states, warming is now ‘unequivocal’ and changes of 2-5°C by the end of the Century are predicted without urgent action on climate change.  Numerous papers and reports have highlighted the public health implications of climate change. It is evident that climate change is dangerous to health, and that companies that promote fossil-fuel usage should have no place in the climate negotiations.

For example, the fossil-fuel industry has poured millions of pounds into organisations funding climate skepticism, in exactly the same way that tobacco companies funded the Merchants of Doubt for decades, as chronicled in detail by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, and more recently Greenpeace’s Dealing in Doubt report. The European Parliament has recognised the detrimental effects of this intentional collusion, and has recognised that countries ‘need to be vigilant concerning efforts by economic actors that emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases or benefit from burning fossil fuels, to undermine or subvert climate protection efforts’.

The development of a climate change Article 5.3 is an evident necessity.  Fossil-fuel producers should not have influence on climate negotiations and their influence on them should be kept to an absolute minimum, based on the growing recognition that – unless and until low-carbon energy is their main product – their interests fundamentally conflict with the aims of the COP process.  As Rachel Tansey eloquently writes, “now is the time to make the case, and build a global campaign, for a climate agreement which protects climate change policy-making from the vested interests of corporations that benefit from the continued excessive use of fossil fuels.”

The outline for protecting public interest from the interests of industry has been established around tobacco under the FCTC.  There is the potential to ensure a much more restricted role for fossil-fuel corporations by COP21 in 2015; the same length of time it took to ratify the FCTC.  As the tobacco industry’s interests run directly counter to those of public health, so too do the fossil-fuel industry’s, as climate change is increasingly recognised as an important and growing threat to health.


PawlukAlicia Pawluk is a third year medical student at the University of Manchester. During her BSc in Medicine at the University of St Andrews, Alicia developed an interest in the interplay between the medical profession and climate change. To date, Alicia’s research has covered the areas of climate science, neurogenetics, and palliative medicine.


  1. I had the good fortune to supervise Ms. Pawluck for two summer sessions in our Neurogenetics Clinic in Victoria BC. I can say without reservation that she is among to top 5 undergraduate medical students I have encountered over a long period of teaching.
    She truly has a global perspective and I look forward to what she takes on next!


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