Comment: Health overlooked in our response to climate change

All this week RTCC and Healthy Planet UK will be exposing the real health impacts of climate change that all too often are absent from the debate.

By Isobel Braithwaite

The protection of human health and welfare is a central rationale for the emissions reductions that are called for in the very first article of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Yet, somehow, the issue is missing from many parts of the UN talks.

The growing body of research and evidence in the area over the past couple of decades hasn’t really translated into a broader understanding of how climate change and health are related, beyond a relatively small community of academics and health professionals.

Knowledge about the links between climate and health among the public, climate negotiators and environmentalists is often limited and quite superficial. It typically doesn’t stretch far beyond the more direct impacts, such as heatwaves, vector-borne diseases or extreme weather events such as flooding.

The military supply water in Dhaka (Source: UN/Kibae Park)

Indirect effects are rarely considered, and both the media and the public tend to frame the impacts of climate change in terms of the damage to ecosystems and species or to the economy – very rarely in terms of its other impacts on people.

Perhaps that’s part of why climate mitigation and adaptation measures fail to get the levels of both political and financial support they need to tackle climate change and to protect and promote health in the face of it: current levels of adaptation finance, much like current emissions reductions pledges, are grossly inadequate.

As a glance at any newspaper or polls about the relative political importance of different topics make clear – most of us are concerned about our own health and the health of those we care about, including that of our children and grandchildren and less visible problems like climate change, which are also delayed in time, often feature far below this on the agenda.

Climate change will dramatically affect the health of today’s children and young people, and more than that, policies to promote the health ‘co-benefits’ of sustainability and climate action could greatly improve health.

Surely those messages, if communicated more clearly, could be a strong driver to help us achieve the sort of rapid, meaningful changes we need in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, couldn’t it?


In the UK, several thousand health professionals have joined the Climate and Health Council to add their voice to a global climate and health movement which already has strong voices in Australia, Europe and the US, along with several other regions, and they are starting to connect up, for example with the Doha Declaration.

At the same time, communication with negotiators, the mainstream media and the wider public around what’s known about climate and health clearly hasn’t yet been very effective, compounded by the confusion that biased and inaccurate media such as Fox News and the Murdoch empire seek to create.

One of my friends recently asked me when he saw this video, “if climate change is really such a big health threat, then why don’t most people know that, and why isn’t it mentioned more in the news?”

I’m convinced by the evidence that it is – some of it is collected on the Healthy Planet resources page – but I found it hard to answer his question. Have we all, consciously or subconsciously, decided that it’s too depressing so we don’t want to know, do the media decide it’s not worth broadcasting, is it related to the success of fossil fuel companies in manufacturing doubt, or is it something else?

I don’t have the answers but I think there are many reasons: for one, picking out long-term trends to ascertain what health impacts are attributable to climate change is no easy task, and – especially when it comes to modelling future health impacts which are often highly dependent on socioeconomic factors too – the science is far from simple.

Predictions, of necessity, depend on various assumptions and on multiple interacting factors. As with climate change in general, the real-world effects are highly uncertain: not because scientists think health might be fine in a world four or six degrees hotter, but because it’s very hard to work out exactly how bad the impacts may be.

Even the World Bank now explicitly recognises that this is what we’re currently on course towards, that it’ll be far from easy to adapt to, and that such a temperature rise would conflict greatly with its mission to alleviate poverty.


As George Monbiot pointed out in characteristically optimistic style last year, mainstream global predictions for future food availability in the face of climate change may be wildly off – because they’re based only on average temperatures rather than the extremes.

A fatal error if this is true that the (increasingly frequent) extremes – droughts, wildfires and so on – may be becoming the main determinant of global food production.

If that’s the case, it’s likely that by far the biggest health impact of climate change will be malnutrition – as argued by Kris Ebi, lead author of the human health section of the last IPCC report.

Of course, inadequate food not only increases vulnerability to infectious diseases such as malaria, TB, pneumonia and diarrhoeal disease, but also kills directly through starvation.

Food insecurity in turn, like sea-level rise, can force people to migrate, which can be a driver of civil conflict. Both migration and conflict of course have major physical and health impacts. Like any give extreme weather event, it’s hard to attribute indirect effects of climate change such as these to climate change, given how strongly it interacts with other contextual factors. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a causal relationship.

As the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment showed in 2005, our health and wellbeing ultimately depends on ecosystem functioning and stability, at levels from local to global. How ecosystems and in turn health are being – and will be – affected by climate change is unavoidably complex. That makes it hard to communicate and hard to use to change policy, but we cannot allow this to stop effective advocacy and action.

The fossil fuel industries and the many dubious institutions and individuals they fund will not wait: with billions made from the sale of coal, oil and gas, they are much better organised and resourced than us at present, and they will use every opportunity to maintain doubt, prolong inaction and ensure that our future isn’t allowed to compromise their sales.

In order to extend a sense of the importance of climate action beyond the environmental community and to secure broad and deep consensus on the need for concerted action, health must play a much bigger role in decision-making at all levels.

Both impacts and health co-benefits need to feature more centrally in national mitigation and adaptation plans, and in our discussions around climate change more generally.

That shift won’t happen on its’ own though, and with the Bonn UNFCCC intersessionals coming up in June, perhaps health should be a priority area. Better resourcing and a comprehensive work programme including capacity-building, education and public awareness on subjects specific to climate and health would be a positive way to protect and promote health and reduce the impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable.

Isobel Braithwaite is a member of Healthy Planet UK

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