Health Workers Can Help Curb Climate Change

Tara YoungBlog

Arctic ice caps are melting. Sea levels are rising. Extreme weather events are devastating communities around the world. The earth is getting hotter, and we feel the effects of climate change in our everyday lives.

But how will global warming affect our health in the long run? A recent report by the The Lancet is the first of its kind to quantify the impacts of climate change on health and monitor global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

With input from experts in climate science, ecology, economy, engineering, public health and more, the Countdown report tracks data on 40 indicators related to climate change. It focuses on the impacts of climate change, climate planning and adaptation, mitigation actions, finance and economics, and public and political engagement.

The Countdown leads by saying that, “the human symptoms of climate change are unequivocal and potentially irreversible.” Intensifying heat waves are severely affecting the lives of elderly and young people; increasing temperatures have reduced outdoor labor productivity by 5.3% and catalyzed the spread of infectious diseases; worsening air pollution exacerbates respiratory diseases; unpredictable crop yields threaten malnourishment. Among all of these impacts, people in low and middle income countries are disproportionately vulnerable, deepening inequalities between the rich and the poor.

Figure 1: Health Impacts of Climate Change

While many countries have begun developing climate adaptation plans for health and investing in cleaner energy sources, these efforts are not enough to overcome decades of widespread inaction. Countdown underscores the importance of both adaptation to climate change impacts, as well as mitigation of the factors contributing to climate change.

In large part, momentum in climate mitigation can be galvanized by the health sector. Health workers already play an important role in encouraging reduction of environmental health risks, both for its impact on population health, as well as reducing health system costs. Health providers can act both as advocates for climate change policy and as educators to patients about the risks of climate change to their health.

Figure 2: Role of the Health Sector in Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

In the coming years, health workers will be at the front lines of responding to the health impacts of climate change. By anticipating climate impacts, assessing vulnerabilities, collecting surveillance data, driving research agendas, and contributing to robust climate adaptation plans, health workers can act now to help health systems adapt to this new normal.

The Lancet ends The Countdown on a hopeful note. “Although progress has been historically slow, the past 5 years have seen an accelerated response, and in 2017, momentum is building across a number of sectors; the direction of travel is set, with clear and unprecedented opportunities for public health.” With global consensus and political commitment to combating climate change, despite the United States’ departure from the 2015 climate agreement, progress toward climate indicators provides a glimmer of hope that large-scale transformation promising a healthier future is well underway.