Using climate knowledge to manage health risks saves lives
There is a common thread between weather and climate and some of the most fundamental determinants of human health.
Millions of people each year are affected by extreme weather events such as heat and cold waves, tropical cyclones, floods, and droughts. These can damage or destroy health facilities and water and sanitation infrastructure.
Even more are impacted by under-nutrition resulting from food insecurity, respiratory diseases from poor air quality, water-borne and vector-borne diseases.
Climate change is intensifying – and complicating – these relationships. It makes the need for preventive action against climate-related health risks an urgent matter.
Taking action requires global and local health communities to understand the weather and climate affecting them. They must be able to factor this knowledge in to daily and long term decisions in public health.
It has long been a challenge for the health community to access the information needed for research or early warning systems. There has also been a gap in the skills to understand and apply climate information in a meaningful way.
Likewise, the meteorological community in the past has not fully appreciated the concerns and needs of the public health community, or the potential applications that exist for their science. There has been little dialogue between the two sectors.
Earlier this year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change updated the evidence on the health risks of climate change.
It drew serious conclusions on some of today’s most significant health risks such as air pollution, malnutrition and diarrheal diseases.
Some scenarios showed warming of more than 4C. This would cross some critical thresholds and threaten human health and sustainable development.
The Ban Ki-Moon climate talks in New York next month will be a crucial test of political commitment to avoid this worst-case scenario.
Even a 2C rise is expected to increase risks of major killers such as extreme weather, diarrhoeal diseases and malnutrition.
Areas with high vulnerability and weak health infrastructure – mostly in low and middle-income countries – will be the least able to cope. They will need help to prepare and respond to a changing climate.
In all countries, these changes hit children and the poor hardest. It is imperative we start to become smarter and more proactive about managing these issues.
To try to bridge the divide, the World Health Organization and the World Meteorological Organization recently set up a new climate and health office. This comes under the auspices of the Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS) and aims to promote the coordinated development and application of user-driven climate services.
The health community needs to access, understand, and apply available climate information products. It must interpret regional climate predictions, hazard warnings and seasonal outlooks.
Meteorologists and climatologists should be aware of the health risks so they can provide the right information.
Now that the WMO Secretariat has a focal point for liaison with WHO and other health partners, it will be easier to combine our expertise. In this way, we can maximise the benefits from advances in climate and health science.
The health community welcomed our announcement of the new office. Expectations are high, as is the potential to better use climate science to solve pressing health problems.
Climate services are about people coming together to solve real-time problems.
When it comes to health, this means making sure hospitals are not built in flood zones. It means alerts when air pollution or heat reach dangerous levels. It means preparing for droughts and the attendant risks of food security.
Such services need to be part and parcel of a climate-smart health system.
The WHO-WMO joint office is a historic step toward closer collaboration. It will provide support in four main areas:
1) Make sure meteorological services have a voice in international health policy fora, while giving strategic policy direction to WMO and GFCS to understand and respond to the needs of the health sector.
2) Provide coordination, resource mobilisation, and technical support to demonstration projects and research. The first climate services adaptation programmes have started in Malawi and Tanzania.
3) Strengthen coordination between WHO and WMO, and with the wider community of practice for climate service action for health.
4) Develop awareness-raising and technical guidance materials. This follows joint work between WHO and WMO on The Atlas of Health and Climate in 2012 and the 2014 guidance on developing heat-health early warning systems.
Learning to use climate and weather knowledge to manage health risks can not only help save lives today. It is part of learning to adapt to climate extremes and a different climate future.
Joy Shumake-Guillemot PhD heads up the WHO/WMO Climate and Health Office