How will climate change affect health?

Environmental changes are already affecting human health, and are likely to lead to greater frequency and coverage of infectious diseases such as malaria, particularly in developing countries. A rise in air pollutants and allergens may lead to more cases of respiratory disease (Confalonieri et al., 2007). Greater frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as floods and heat waves, will increase mortality and injury rates, particularly among women, older people and children (WHO, 2012; 2014). Malnutrition rates are also likely to increase, particularly because agriculture is already being affected by environmental changes (FAO, 2016).

Social consequences of climate change will also have a direct impact on health. Experts caution that population displacement following natural disasters, for example, may lead to psychological stress and place women at higher risk of sexual and domestic violence (WHO, 2012; 2014).

Groups that are particularly vulnerable to health-related impacts of climate change include women, older people, children, traditional societies, subsistence farmers, and coastal populations (Confalonieri et al., 2007). Gender is a particularly important determinant of how climate change impacts health (WHO, 2012; 2014).

Confalonieri, U., Menne, B., Akhtar, R., Ebi, K. L., Hauengue, M., Kovats, R. S., & Woodward, A. (2007). Human health. In M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden, & C.E. Hanson (Eds.), Climate change 2007: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (pp. 391-431). Cambridge University Press.
The paper finds that there is ‘very high confidence’ that climate change currently contributes to the global burden of disease and premature death, and that health risks will be greatest in low income countries and among the poor, older people, children, traditional societies, subsistence farmers and coastal populations. Identified health impacts range from changes in the distribution of some infectious disease vectors, to an increase in deaths and injuries related to extreme weather events. The paper argues that adaptive capacity needs to be improved globally, and that economic development is an important component of this adaptation.

WHO. (2014). Gender, climate change and health. Geneva: WHO.
Based on mixed-method evidence, this paper identifies gender differences in the health risks and impacts of climate change. It finds a range of gender-relevant impacts, including: women are more likely to die during natural disasters than men; gender rules, norms and relations may prevent women from accessing health care; and pregnant women are more vulnerable to certain diseases, such as malaria. Recommendations include: gender-sensitive research to identify factors that contribute to vulnerability; gender-responsive and accessible health services that reach the poorest populations; and adaptation strategies that consider women’s and men’s capacities, power, resilience, vulnerabilities and resources.

Adaptation and mitigation in health

Adaptation and mitigation efforts in the health sector have been hampered by capacity constraints, including weak research capacity to inform adaptation and poor primary health information systems (Costello et al., 2009). Experts contend, however, that mitigation and adaptation actions provide added benefits in relation to health. Recommendations include gender-sensitive health and awareness campaigns; health surveillance and monitoring systems; gender-responsive accessible health services; and tailoring health adaptation approaches to existing capacities.

Costello, A., Abbas, M., Allen, A., Ball, S., Bell, S., Bellamy, R., & Patterson, C. (2009). Managing the health effects of climate change. The Lancet, 373, 1693-733.
Based on qualitative empirical evidence, this article argues that climate change will place millions of people at risk and increase health inequity by negatively impacting key determinants of health. Challenges include: weak research capacity to inform adaptation; the need to improve primary health information systems; and the need to share local knowledge on a wider scale. A public health and advocacy movement is suggested to bring together relevant actors from local communities, government, international agencies, NGOs and academia. Adaptation and mitigation measures should support local government and communities to understand the implications of climate change; consider climate change in all governance actions; and introduce accountability mechanisms to monitor progress.

WHO. (2012). Mainstreaming gender in health adaptation to climate change programmes. Geneva: WHO.
This guide identifies the gender dimensions of health and climate change, and provides recommendations for how gender can be mainstreamed into health adaptation to climate change programmes. It suggests two approaches: a gender analysis; and a checklist for gender mainstreaming, which includes recommendations for each phase of the programme cycle.

McMichael, A., Campbell-Lendrum, D., Corvalán, Ebi, K., Githeko, A., Scheraga, J., & Woodward, A. (Eds.). (2003). Climate change and human health: Risks and responses. Geneva: WHO.
This paper draws on mixed-method evidence to identify a wide range of climate change impacts on health. Among these are increased mortality due to temperature change and natural disasters, and changes in the dispersal and rate of vector-borne disease. Recommendations include basing adaptation approaches on appropriate technologies, information, finance and institutional capacity; and better quantitative data to help target adaptation.