Climate change poses a severe threat not just to the environment but also to our health and health systems. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is essential to avoid catastrophic health consequences and the deaths of millions of people. However, even minor temperature increases can have significant consequences for our well-being.
Figure 1 provides an overview of the pathways between climate change and health. Climate change is already impacting health in a myriad of ways, including by leading to death and illness from increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, storms and floods, the disruption of food systems, increases in zoonoses and food-, water- and vector-borne diseases, and mental health issues. Furthermore, climate change is undermining many of the social determinants for good health, such as livelihoods, equality and access to health care and social support structures.
These climate-sensitive health risks are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, including women, children, ethnic minorities, poor communities, migrants or displaced persons, older populations, and those with underlying health conditions.
In the short- to medium-term, the health impacts of climate change will be determined mainly by the vulnerability of populations, their resilience to the current rate of climate change and the extent and pace of adaptation. In the longer-term, the effects will increasingly depend on the extent to which transformational action is taken now to reduce emissions and avoid the breaching of dangerous temperature thresholds and potential irreversible tipping points.
At the same time, healthcare systems also contribute to the causes of climate change, accounting for approximately 5.2% of all global emissions. One of the main contributors is the energy-intensive supply chain relied on by healthcare systems rely, which involves the production and transportation of supplies and equipment. In addition, energy consumption and medical waste also contribute to the carbon emissions of healthcare systems.
By taking a leading role in reducing emissions and addressing the intersection between climate and health, health systems have a unique opportunity to lead by example and make a real difference in the fight against climate change and protect health. By doing so, they can build greater resilience in healthcare facilities and secure more sustainable and healthier communities.
The challenge for the health community is three-fold:
To contribute to addressing this public health challenge, over 60 countries have made commitments to build climate resilient and low carbon sustainable health systems and the Alliance for Transformative Action on Climate Change and Health (ATACH) has been established to support delivery of these commitments.