Why Climate Change Is a Threat To Our Health

Climate change has many effects, but one of the most significant will feature for the first time at COP28 – its impact on human health, says Alistair Woodward, Professor at the School of Population Health at the University of Auckland.

Now under way in Dubai, the latest Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change includes a day dedicated to human health and climate action. Health is – or should be – at the centre of climate policy.

Nations do not progress if the health of their population fails. We also know climate change is a serious threat to good health.

In the past 20 years, for example, the number of heat-related deaths among people aged 65 and over has increased by 70% worldwide. Rising temperatures, altered rainfall patterns and the displacement of millions of people by floods and fires may amplify the spread of significant infectious diseases, such as dengue and cholera.

Home Truths

In New Zealand, extreme flooding in Hawkes Bay and Tairawhiti in early 2023 meant thousands were cut off from essential supplies. Many were trapped in homes that could not be repaired. There were 11 deaths from drowning and injury.

And remember the outbreak of campylobacteriosis in Havelock North in 2016, the largest mass poisoning in the country’s history, was caused by heavy rain washing sheep faeces into an unprotected water supply.

How probable is it that these extraordinarily heavy rains were due to climate change? According to a study led by Luke Harrington from the University of Waikato, 75% probable. With extreme weather events more likely in future, addressing the consequences for human health becomes more urgent.

Health has long been on the margin of climate negotiations. The focus has been on loss and damage to property and land. Health programmes have seldom been at the front of the queue when global climate funds are distributed.

Students in Wellington, New Zealand, protesting during the school strike for climate change.

Return on Investments

It’s estimated less than one cent in every dollar spent by international development agencies on adaptation to climate change has gone to health projects. And yet we know reducing the risks of climate change in the long term can also provide opportunities to lift the health of populations rapidly.

Research has estimated best-practice bike infrastructure in Auckland would return health benefits 10-25 times greater than the costs involved.

Meat farming and production have significant climate impacts, whereas plant-based and flexitarian diets are typically healthier for people, environments and the climate. They can also cut food bills by up to a third, according to an Oxford University study.

Why Health Day is So Important

Health Day at COP28 is a significant opportunity to raise the profile of these interconnections and co-benefits. It attracts many senior politicians who might not otherwise attend the negotiations. It also provides a platform for governments, international agencies, global funding bodies and the private sector to highlight initiatives and gather support.

The programme includes presentations on green healthcare, case studies in building health resilience, best-practice approaches to measuring the burden of disease due to climate change, and health funding priorities for agencies such as the Global Climate Fund. The programme also suggests the basis for a New Zealand national climate and health strategy, so it is a pity Health Minister Shane Reti will not be attending. The new government is also repealing climate-related policies introduced by the previous administration, but it is not clear what will replace them.

Future Focus

Meanwhile, according to a recent poll, two-thirds of New Zealanders expect to see severe climate impacts in their region in the next decade, mostly floods and fires. How will New Zealand manage when these impacts mount up?

The Health Day at COP28 points to what is required. Health must be brought to the centre of climate policy. As the director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Ghebreyesus, has put it: Prioritising health is not just a choice, it is the foundation of resilient societies.

This article first appeared on The Conversation, and is re-published with permission.

Photograph sourced from Shutterstock

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