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Climate Change and Global Health: The Urgent Need for Action

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Sara Katchi and Anna Dé 

Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges humanity faces today. As the Earth’s climate continues to change at an alarming rate, it becomes increasingly crucial to address the interplay between climate change and global health. This blog aims to shed light on the connections between climate change and global health and highlights the urgent need for action.

Climate Change and Global Health: The Interconnectedness

Climate change is intricately linked to human health through a variety of mechanisms. Rising temperatures, changing weather patterns, extreme weather events and the alteration of ecosystems all contribute to adverse health effects. The phasing out of fossil fuels at global scale, and replacing them with renewable energy, as well as fighting deforestation are examples of policies to combat climate change.

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Impacts of climate change on global health:

  1. Increased Heat-Related Illnesses: Higher temperatures can lead to heatwaves, resulting in heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and other heat-related illnesses. Heatwaves can impact large populations for short periods of time, often trigger public health emergencies, and result in excess mortality, and have socioeconomic impacts, such as lost work capacity and labour productivity. They can also cause loss of health service delivery capacity, where power-shortages which often accompany heatwaves disrupt health facilities, transport and water infrastructure. Vulnerable populations such as the elderly, children and those with pre-existing conditions are particularly at risk.
  2. Infectious Diseases: Climate change can influence the transmission patterns of infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and Lyme disease. Changes in temperature and precipitation create favourable conditions for disease-carrying vectors like mosquitoes and ticks to proliferate and spread into new regions. Climate change and infectious diseases do not respect borders. Tackling the threats they present requires dialogue, cooperation and collaborative working.
  3. Food and Water Insecurity: The negative effects of climate change have a large impact on food systems, which are already facing increased pressure from the demands of a growing global population, increased urbanisation and loss of biodiversity. The reduction of crop yields, disrupted food supply chains, and waterborne diseases pose significant health threats. A combination of spikes in food prices, reduced incomes, disruption of trade and transport, and damage to market infrastructures hinder vulnerable people’s access to food, leading to poor quality and diversity of diets. This combined with water insecurity and disease outbreaks arising as a result of climate change creates an unprecedented global nutrition crisis.
  4. Air Pollution: The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 7 million people die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution, and around 90% of the world’s population breathe polluted air. Climate change exacerbates air pollution through various mechanisms, including wildfires, increased ozone formation, and changes in atmospheric conditions. Poor air quality is associated with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, leading to increased morbidity and mortality rates.
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A global health policy response to climate change:

Global health policy plays a crucial role in addressing the health impacts of climate change. Key components of an effective global health policy response to climate change include:

  1. Strengthening Health Systems: policies should prioritise strengthening healthcare systems, particularly in vulnerable regions. This includes improving access to healthcare, training healthcare professionals to address climate-related health risks, and developing robust surveillance systems to detect and respond to emerging health threats.

The Paris Agreement of 2015 was a landmark in the multilateral climate change process because, for the first time, a binding agreement brought nations together to combat climate change and adapt to its effects.

The world agreed to limit global warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels by 2050. 

“We see the Paris Agreement as a fundamental public health agreement, potentially the most important public health agreement of the century.”
Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, WHO Team Lead on Climate Change and Health
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
  1. Adaptation and Resilience: Policies should focus on building adaptive capacity and resilience to climate change impacts in healthcare settings. This involves integrating climate change considerations into infrastructure planning, ensuring the availability of essential resources during emergencies and developing early warning systems for extreme weather events. 

    The COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health: “The Health Argument For Climate Action” (2021) spells out action points aligning climate and health goals. Policies should focus on building adaptive capacity and resilience to climate change impacts in healthcare settings. In parallel with reducing emissions, adaptation efforts are needed to reduce vulnerability to climate impacts, building resilience and allow for equitable and sustainable development. Adaptation is a crucial pillar of the Paris Agreement and it is embedded in policy and planning in most countries. The main takeaway from the COP27 conference (2022) was the agreement to create a “loss and damage” fund. It will provide financial assistance to developing countries devastated by climate change-driven extreme weather such as floods, hurricanes and droughts.

  2. Mitigation Strategies: Efforts should be made to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This involves advocating for clean energy transitions, promoting sustainable transportation, and adopting climate-friendly practices in healthcare facilities.
  3. Collaborative Partnerships: Governments, intergovernmental organisations, non-governmental organisations and the private sector should work together to develop and implement comprehensive strategies that address the health impacts of climate change.

Climate change is emerging as the greatest health challenge of the 21st century.

This is a crucial year for the intersection of climate change and health. In June 2023, the WHO announced the appointment of Dr Vanessa Kerry as the first-ever Director-General Special Envoy for Climate Change and Health. COP28, being held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on 30 November-12 December 2023 will be a milestone moment when the world will take stock of its progress on the Paris Agreement. A thematic day will be devoted to health. The Health Day, taking place on 3 December 2023, in conjunction with the Relief, Recovery and Peace Day aims to put a human face on climate change though the lens of health, as well as humanitarian relief, disaster risk reduction, reconstruction and peace.  

Climate change poses significant threats to global health, demanding urgent action and comprehensive policy responses. The link between climate change and health requires a holistic approach that integrates climate considerations and global health.

By strengthening healthcare systems, building resilience, promoting mitigation efforts, and fostering collaboration, we may mitigate the health risks associated with climate change.

Now, more than ever, it is imperative for policymakers, healthcare professionals and society at large to prioritise climate change and global health as integral to our response to safeguarding the health and well-being of present and future generations.

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