How climate law can help prevent the next pandemic
Two of the greatest crises facing humanity – pandemics and climate change – are closely linked. Climate change increases many health risks, including the likelihood of new viruses spreading and causing dangerous epidemics. But although efforts to control climate change are backed by a web of international treaties and legal agreements, these tools have not been fully applied to global health. Those gathering for the World Health Assembly in Geneva later this month should push for that to change.
I am a lawyer and researcher specializing in the governance of pandemics and climate change. I have seen the development of international laws produce political commitments such as national emissions targets. Since 1992, a network of treaties, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has established protocols for reaching consensus. Progress has been slow, but real.
This is illustrated by the 2015 Paris Agreement. Yes, it is insufficient: countries set their own non-binding targets. Nevertheless, presidents and prime ministers have pledged to reduce emissions and are now publicly accountable. Countries have also explicitly recognized that climate change (such as extreme heat, droughts and floods) can undermine the right to health by contributing to crop failures, infectious diseases and other disasters. The agreement captured the political momentum to get countries to make important commitments that are growing over time.
Pandemics lack any equivalent scaffolding to support complex global cooperation. The International Health Regulations, which were last overhauled in 2005, have significant shortcomings. Although they are legally binding, their enforcement is weak and they are widely ignored. The global health community, often loath to appear “political,” has underutilized the potential of international law to set standards for compliance.
In 2021, member states of the World Health Organization established a formal negotiating body to explore international law in pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. When he asked for comment last month, I made two points. First, this pandemic law should engage countries’ existing legal obligations in recognizing how climate change will exacerbate epidemics. Second, that a pandemic treaty could be modeled on climate law to make countries transparent and accountable for delivering on commitments. The details – from virus monitoring, information sharing, etc. – are less urgent than the process, with one exception. Pandemic law should learn from the failures of climate law and ensure that attention is paid to justice and equity between and within countries.
The UNFCCC was written to spur action. A framework convention is a treaty that sets out high-level legally binding principles and obligations to encourage faster negotiation and adoption. It can instill political momentum into national commitments, including governance structures and processes. It also enables protocols, such as the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris Agreement, that can be refined in parallel or over time, so that negotiators can build on past progress and create detailed obligations for specific issues, such as technology transfer or equitable distribution of vaccines.
The power of the UNFCCC lies in how it establishes institutions and processes to support collective action and accountability. The Conferences of the Parties (COP) are the clearest example of this. Remember how COP26 in Glasgow last year captured the world’s attention and spurred leaders to set bigger goals. COPs exist to assess, clarify and reiterate obligations. Non-governmental organizations, advocacy organizations and other parts of civil society use COPs to hold governments to account. Citizens can also hold governments to account if they don’t take enough action, as is the case with climate class action lawsuits in more than 35 countries. Indeed, the fact that there are so many powerful global public health organizations could make these mechanisms more powerful.
The key is not to take any single treaty, agreement or policy as the outcome – there have been so many disappointments. We should examine how these mechanisms work together. Funding and capacity building are essential for effectiveness under the UNFCCC, the Paris Agreement and COP decisions. Accountability and transparency are also crucial. Pandemic law must, for example, protect the rights of whistleblowers, including health workers.
Better than punitive measures, which can erode cooperation, there are mechanisms to encourage compliance. For example, the compliance committee established by the Paris Agreement helps countries make progress on emissions targets by identifying non-compliance, providing expert advice on requirements and timelines, and enforcing plans. .
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produces regular reports that provide reliable updates and syntheses of available data. Similarly, an effective pandemic treaty would establish an independent process for collecting and synthesizing scientific evidence for preparedness and response. This would guide investments in capacity building and technology development, and inform outbreak mitigation policies.
International climate legislation is far from sufficient: countries have not yet reduced their emissions enough to avoid a hotter and sicker world. But they enabled climate action. Any pandemic treaty will be imperfect. But taking tough, imperfect steps is the only way to build momentum.
The author declares no competing interests.