Human Health and Climate Change


Source: New York Times

Yesterday, the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) held the 10th Focal Point Forum on Health and Adaptation under the Nairobi Work Programme. The meeting was an opportunity for UNFCCC national focal points, Nairobi Work Programme (NWP) focal points, and health experts to discuss emerging health issues resulting from climate change. Discussions also highlighted new adaptation actions to respond to climate impacts on human health. The meeting is part of a growing global interest to examine the links between climate change and health.

Climate change has profound effects on human health across the globe. Climate change can change the severity and frequency of health problems as well as decrease the predictability of where issues will occur. Health problems resulting from climate change are widespread and varied, ranging from water-borne diseases caused by flooding to malnutrition from unprecedented droughts. Other issues include respiratory disease from pollution, cardiovascular issues from extreme heat, and mental illness from disasters. The problem is complex and cannot be linked to an isolated factor. This means that the health community, climate scientists, governments, and financial institutions cannot solve the problem alone. Instead, the problem calls for a multidisciplinary approach. For doctors, researchers, lawyers, and scientists who are accustomed to working within the comfort of their field this means taking risks. Last night, the message at the Focal Point Forum was for climate experts to step out of their comfort zones and begin to engage across disciplines to develop innovative solutions for this complex problem.

Source: World Health Organization

Source: World Health Organization

Lower-income populations, children, pregnant-women, older adults, and certain occupations are among the most vulnerable populations. Some examples of health concerns include emerging vector-borne diseases like Zika for women, diarrheal diseases for children, and heatstroke for older populations. However, just like climate change the issues are not limited to specific populations. Changing ecosystems and temperatures are changing the geographical distributions of disease. Diseases like malaria and Lyme disease are moving northward, and it is increasingly important for the health community to be able to react and respond as quickly as possible in order to be prepared for unexpected outbreaks.

Global leaders are taking note. The World Health Organization (WHO) is raising awareness about the issue and inform health professionals on how to respond. Earlier this year the Obama Administration published a report on the impacts of climate change and health.

In responding to climate-related health problems, the UNFCCC can support Parties seeking to address climate-related health problems. Under the Paris Agreement, the preamble recognizes the right to health. In developing adaptation actions, parties can include health in their national adaptation plans (NAPs). This could help Parties leverage support in terms of funding, capacity-building, and technology. Moreover, Parties can utilize programs like the NWP to share best-practices in order to develop policies and programs to respond to increasing health threats.

However, more still needs to be done. Globally, there is a lack of stable funding to ensure adequate local implementation measures. Likewise, there is a lack of early warning systems, which can help medical professionals be prepared for unexpected events. And, turning back to the need for an interdisciplinary approach, more needs to be done to connect climate science with health professionals. This could include incorporating climate change into medical school curricula. Until real progress is made towards achieving a global energy balance, health problems resulting from climate change will get worse before they get better. Climate change experts must take risks and work collectively to provide adaptive solutions to emerging climate-related health problems.