Why climate change is a threat to global health

In the face of one of the greatest health threats for humanity, the urgent need to implement measures addressing climate change remains a compelling, yet unrealized goal. 

Why climate change is a threat to global health

In the face of one of the greatest health threats to humanity, the urgent need to implement measures addressing climate change remains a compelling yet unrealised goal.

Climate change is happening now, and its impacts are being felt around the globe. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that a staggering one in four deaths can be attributed to preventable environmental causes, and climate change is exacerbating these risks.

Climate change poses many complex health challenges, from extreme weather events to the spread of infectious diseases and the worsening of chronic conditions. It cannot be prevented with a vaccine or treated with an antibiotic. But we know that we can mitigate its impact.

Cotton that did not survive due to drought is shown on the farm of Barry Evans on Oct. 3, 2022, in Kress, Texas.

Reducing emissions across all sectors is critical to contain climate change and keep 1.5C within reach. To do this, the world must decarbonise its energy systems and reduce emissions by at least 43 per cent over the next seven years.

If we don’t act, climate change will soon overwhelm the world’s health systems. Extreme weather events – like droughts, floods and heatwaves – will increase in frequency and severity as the planet warms. Last year’s floods in Pakistan, for example, displaced eight million people and affected 33 million overall.

If we don't act, climate change will soon overwhelm the world's health systems. Extreme weather events – like droughts, floods and heatwaves – will increase in frequency and severity as the planet warms.

Worse to come

We know that worse is yet to come. 

Without bold and urgent action, climate change will displace around 216 million people by 2050, the World Bank estimates. Climate change endangers lives and livelihoods as global food systems struggle to feed a growing world population and water sources are compromised. And climate change is triggering a surge in infectious diseases like dengue and cholera, which endanger millions. 

Reducing emissions can produce significant health benefits, including lessening air pollution, which kills seven million people every year.

The connection between health and climate change is undeniable. The international community must accelerate the energy transition away from fossil fuels and simultaneously build resilience. 

What the global community must understand is that investing in climate resilience at a local level pays dividends. The World Bank estimates that every dollar spent on building climate resilience will bring an average return of $4, as better-quality health and wider infrastructure benefit communities and have lasting impacts over multiple sectors. 

Most importantly, there is a staggering toll if we do not act. Climate change is already affecting almost half the world's population. By 2050, with a 2C warming scenario, a terrifying 1.4 billion more people will be exposed to heat stress, the majority to the most severe forms. 

Firefighters monitor as flames consume brush along Gilman Springs Road during the Rabbit Fire, July 14, 2023, in Moreno Valley, Calif.

Climate justice

Health must be central to a just climate agenda because those least able to bear the impacts of climate change are also set to suffer the most. Already, the impacts of climate change are being felt disproportionately by low and middle-income countries, even though they are responsible for only a tiny share of global emissions. 

These disparities will only worsen. According to the World Bank, almost 40% of climate-related poverty will result from direct health impacts as people lose their livelihoods or see medical expenses soar.  

This future cannot be our reality. That's why we are calling on governments and key stakeholders around the world to come to COP28 with ambitious solutions that prevent these health outcomes – and help those already affected. 

As the world's response to COVID-19 has shown us, in the face of great health threats, humanity can come together and tackle the most dramatic challenges – if we unite, act and deliver. Never has this been more important. 

As the world's response to COVID-19 has shown us, in the face of great health threats, humanity can come together and tackle the most dramatic challenges – if we unite, act and deliver. Never has this been more important. 

This year's UN climate conference will host the first-ever dedicated Health Day on 3 December and launch a critical call to action beginning with two key pillars. 

We have worked closely with several nations as country champions – including Brazil, Malawi, the UK, the US, the Netherlands, Kenya, Fiji, India, Egypt, Sierra Leone, and Germany – to develop a Declaration on Climate and Health, which we launch during the recent World Health Summit. This Declaration on Climate and Health will make health an anchor of the climate agenda and a key part of COP28's legacy. 

People wear face masks as they walk outside in the smoke-filled air in Herald Square, June. 7, 2023, in New York.

A call to all

We are calling on all governments to sign up to our Declaration because we know that together, we can deliver public health systems that are climate resilient, climate neutral, sustainable and equitable and which benefit us all. 

Second, financing will be a key catalyst on the COP28 Health Day. We want to increase not only the overall amount of climate financing but also leverage investments devoted to and supporting health. Today, just 2% of adaptation funding and 0.5%  of multilateral climate funding go to health.

At COP28, we can help transform the entire climate finance infrastructure for impact. We are calling on international financial institutions and multilateral development banks to increase the flow of concessional funds to the Global South, to lower risk and attract more private capital, while increasing the share that goes to adaptation – and to health. 

We are facing an unprecedented crisis. We already have solutions to meet this moment. A health centred climate response is a critical one.

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