Climate change and health: The case to act

Isobel Braithwaite and Erica Parker, Global Climate and Health Alliance

On Saturday, the 2014 Climate and Health Summit brought together leading health experts and policy-makers from around the world. Inspiring speakers – including Peru’s Minister of Health; the UNFCCC’s Chief of Staff, Daniele Violetti; World Bank Vice President, Rachel Kyte; and IIED’s Saleemul Huq – shared their perspectives on the health dimensions of climate change and the political progress needed to protect health.

Public health is arguably one of the most concerning – yet under-reported – elements of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report, in terms of the health impacts which are projected to occur without adequate emissions reductions. However, a health perspective also gives us a reason for cautious optimism, because of the scale of the ‘co-benefits’ of action on climate change for health.

Clean air and water, shelter, safe ambient temperatures, and nutritious foods are examples of what are known as the ‘determinants of health’, and they all are threatened by climate change. A warmer and wetter climate is expected to increase people’s exposure to heatwaves, floods, wildfires and tropical storms, causing multiple direct health effects. At the most basic level, high temperatures increase physiological stress, and without sufficient mitigation efforts now, we could see temperatures so hot that they make it almost impossible to work outside for parts of the year in some places.

Climate change also has less direct effects, resulting from the damage to crops, homes and businesses caused by higher temperatures, changing patterns of rainfall and extreme weather events. Such changes may in turn affect even more people than direct effects, such as heat stress or the spread of infectious diseases, as illustrated by the devastating aftermath of events such as Haiyan and Hagiput in the Philippines, only a year apart. Such impacts – direct and indirect – tend to affect the world’s poorest disproportionally, and those already suffering from complex physical or mental illnesses first and most severely.

Hospitals need to be able to continue caring for their existing patients during events such as these, as well as responding to the needs of those who are injured or become ill. Climate change therefore poses a double burden, increasing the strain on health systems which are often already overstretched. Yet only an estimated one per cent of climate adaptation finance goes towards the health sector.

Of course, adaptation in other sectors also helps to protect health, by helping to safeguard the determinants of health, but also because maintaining adequate healthcare requires access to energy and transport to and from healthcare facilities, for example. However, it would arguably be justifiable to spend a greater proportion of climate finance to ensure that health systems can continue to function, given how highly many people value access to healthcare.

The health perspective discussed at the Lima Climate and Health Summit is something of a secret about climate change, and we hope that events such as this will help to change this, particularly looking towards COP21 in Paris next year. One of the health sector’s crucial roles in this respect is to ensure that policy-makers and the public are aware that many of the policies we need to prevent dangerous climate change are also directly beneficial for people’s health, and that this can save substantial amounts of money, for example through reduced hospital admissions and lower medication use for respiratory diseases as a result of cleaner air. This is true in the short term, even if we ignore the health benefits of reduced climate impacts later on.

Public health concerns are in fact often the major driver for many policies with a significant benefit for the climate, as with Beijing’s planned ban on coal combustion from 2020 for example. Reducing fossil fuel subsidies and increasing those for renewable energy (which is currently subsidised less than a fifth as much as fossil fuels) could help to redress the balance in favour of protecting health and the climate.

Climate change is increasingly being recognised as the defining public health issue of our time. The 2014 Climate and Health Summit highlighted this growing acknowledgment, and demonstrated the high-level support from the health sector for governments to agree a fair and ambitious global climate deal in 2015. During the Summit, the Global Climate and Health Alliance’s Director, Nick Watts, argued that tackling climate change is our ‘greatest opportunity’ to achieve better health. Our task now is to turn this opportunity into a reality.