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Young doctors are at COP28, and they've got a message for world leaders

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Young doctors from around the world are making their mark on this year's U.N. climate talks in Dubai. They say climate change is a health problem. NPR's Alejandra Borunda has some of their stories.

ALEJANDRA BORUNDA, BYLINE: There have been 28 years of annual climate negotiations. At most of them, you could count the number of health professionals on one hand.

SALMAN KAHN: I was not even born 28 years back.

BORUNDA: That's Salman Kahn. He's a 25-year-old doctor from Mumbai, India. Climate change has been part of his whole life.

KAHN: I myself live with asthma, by the way, and I have experienced, you know, increased attacks of asthma, which happened when the air quality index of my city drops down.

BORUNDA: Air quality gets bad because of pollution from burning fossil fuels, which also contributes to climate change. Kahn said he realized that if he wanted to truly care for patients, he had to get involved in climate work.

KAHN: Prevention is better than cure. So, you know, tackling the climate crisis or tackling climate change from a health lens is the prescription that we have for humanity worldwide.

BORUNDA: So Kahn and hundreds of other young medical professionals are in Dubai for COP28. The conference has been laced with frustration over the slow pace of climate action. But these doctors - they are bursting with enthusiasm, and they have a clear message for world leaders.

HARLEEN MARWAH: The climate crisis is a health crisis, and it's hurting our patients now.

BORUNDA: That's Harleen Marwah. She's 30 and a pediatric resident in Philadelphia. She's at COP because she sees even her tiniest patients are dealing with the climate crisis.

MARWAH: If pregnant women are impacted by things like air pollution and extreme heat, it puts the developing baby at higher risk for preterm birth or low birth weight.

BORUNDA: Marwah now counsels parents on how to keep their toddlers cool during heat waves. She prescribes kids more allergy medication because the season is longer, and she talks with teens about climate anxiety.

MARWAH: I'm here to advocate for my patients who don't always have a seat at the table, whether they're too young to vote or they're babies and can't communicate yet.

BORUNDA: At COP28, young medical professionals also feel a real sense of community, and that's giving them energy.

TESS WISKEL: Walking down one of the main avenues at COP28, you can feel the desert heat on you and hear conversations and see just how big the space is and how many people have come from around the world. And it makes me feel excited.

BORUNDA: That's Tess Wiskel. She's an emergency doctor and public health expert at Harvard University. This is her second COP, but she says this one feels different.

WISKEL: The number - the sheer number of talks on health is extraordinary. On health day, I literally was running to be able to make it, to go see my friends and colleagues and see, like, the superstars that are talking as well.

BORUNDA: Wiskel went to the first-ever health ministerial at a COP. There had never been more than a handful of health ministers at one of these meetings ever.

WISKEL: It's in this kind of magnificent blue room.

BORUNDA: And inside the room...

WISKEL: Over 60 health ministers and high-level representatives from different countries sitting in a room together, talking about this, which hasn't happened before.

BORUNDA: More than 130 countries signed a declaration about climate and health, and banks and philanthropies have pledged more than $1 billion in funding for health projects. That was enough reason to celebrate one evening. These doctors, who are all under 40, have never known medicine in a world without climate change, but many say this COP feels like a turning point. Twenty-eight-year-old Tarek Ezzine is a medical student. He represents his country, Tunisia, in the negotiations.

TAREK AZZIN: We will take the win. It's like that, I think. We're just enjoying this momentum or - and what seems to be, like, the beginning of something.

BORUNDA: Ezzine and the other doctors are closely watching to see how health gets incorporated into final negotiating texts. But no matter what, the doctors say, at least now the world is listening. Alejandra Borunda, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX VAUGHN SONG, "SO BE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alejandra Borunda

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