With one in eight people worldwide threatened by a lethal heat wave in South Asia that’s already taken close to 100 lives, it’s time we recognize that the climate crisis is a health crisis.
This is not an isolated issue. In South Africa, recent floods took over 400 lives, across the Sahel violence and insecurity are on the rise as people struggle with hunger, malnutrition and other factors made exponentially worse by climate change, and in place like Colombia, health and food security are at risk as floods displace communities and trigger disease outbreaks.
This is the most pressing health and humanitarian challenge of the 21st century. A quarter of a million people are expected to die every year from climate change between 2030 and 2050 if we do nothing about it, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Climate change affects the social and environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter. According to recent IPCC Climate Change Report, climate change has harmful impacts on human health ranging from mortality from extreme events, morbidity from increasing temperatures and heat waves, malnutrition and disease susceptibility.
And for the first time ever, the IPCC Report includes mental health as a key area impacted by the climate crisis, noting that climate change has adversely affected the physical and mental health of people globally.
People are losing their homes and loved ones as conflicts flare over scarce resources in places like the Lake Chad Basin, and they are redlining on stress as we deal with the prolonged impacts of COVID-19 and the spectre of other zoonotic pathogens that will rise as heat and environmental damage push animals out of their traditional zones, according to Harvard.
And even as countries and communities emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, it is evident that the pandemic has reinforced pre-existing structural inequalities, accentuated systemic challenges and risks, and threatens to reverse hard-earned progress across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Climate change is expected to further worsen the risks. We are already witnessing “irreversible” damage from climate change. According to the IPCC report, over 3 billion people – nearly half of the world’s population – live in “contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change.” And the direct costs of climate change to the health system – not including health determining sectors such as agriculture, water and sanitation – is estimated between US$2 and $4 billion a year by the WHO.
Rethinking climate and health
Climate change adaptation will be one of the key highlights of this year’s Climate Talks in Egypt. World leaders have the chance to connect the dots between health, food security, livelihoods, sustainable economic development and climate actions as we come together to accelerate the ambition of Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement and sprint to achieve the lofty goals outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Most Nationally Determined Contributions have identified health as a priority concern. At COP-26 over 50 countries committed to build climate resilient and low-carbon health systems. These include 47 countries, representing over a third of global health care emissions. Fourteen countries have also set a target date to reach net zero carbon emissions in their health system before 2050.
There are a number of entry points that can assist countries in reaching these goals. The main opportunities come from adaptation interventions that contribute to food and water security, climate-informed health planning that can be inserted into National Adaptation Plans, early warning systems for climate-sensitive infectious diseases, capacity building for health facilities to build the protocols and prepare for the changing health needs that are arising as a result of the climate crisis, public health education campaigns, and community-level investments in water and sanitation facilities and other infrastructure that prevents the spread of disease.
When you think about it as a whole, the climate-health crisis is amazingly complex. In places like Egypt, people need air-conditioning units just to survive the 120-plus degree days. But more AC means more greenhouse gases. So, we also need to rethink economic development, incentives for renewable energy, and reduction of hydro-chloro-fluorocarbons and other pollutants that are literally poisoning our planet.
We also need to rethink climate resilience in our cities, on the farm, and in the marketplace, redefining how we approach commerce and economic development as we adapt to the new challenges of the 21st century.
Piloting climate-health actions
The good news is that we are making progress.
With funding from the Global Environment Facility Special Climate Change Fund, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and WHO supported local governments to pilot climate change adaptation efforts to protect human health in Barbados, Bhutan, China, Fiji, Jordan, Kenya and Uzbekistan.
In Barbados, community-based public health campaigns supported the safe use of wastewater. In Bhutan, the government has advanced its ability to predict climate-sensitive infectious diseases. And in China, three pilot cities have implemented a heat-health warning system.
With funding from the GEF, UNDP is partnering with the WHO to build resilient health systems in Least Developed Countries in Asia, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Nepal, Timor-Leste, and Small Island Developing States such as Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Among the various outputs, the programmes will advance climate-informed health planning and early warning systems, build capacity at health facilities, implement public health campaigns, and support localized community actions directed at the climate-health crisis.
There’s a bigger picture here. In the end, projects designed to address food and water security, advance ecosystem-based adaptation, or enhance livelihoods, will help us in addressing these interconnected issues. In partnership with governments, donors, the private sector, civil society and other key stakeholders, UNDP’s current climate change adaptation portfolio is geared to benefit 126 million people through US$1.6 billion in investments from the vertical funds and bilateral donors, as well as an additional US$3.8 billion leveraged from partners.
This good start, but far shy of the US$20 to US$40 billion in yearly spending for climate change adaptation called for at the Glasgow Climate Talks.
It’s critical that we take a systems-wide approach, embrace new technologies and new ways of working, engage with the private sector, and activate locally led climate actions if we are going to address this crisis.
Millions of lives hang in the balance. It’s time we step up and make climate action – and climate-health action – a global priority. This is our investment in planet Earth, our investment in future generations, our investment in a better world.