Five global health solutions in a changing climate

A. Tianna Scozzaro writes for Sierra Club on five proposed health interventions that improve climate resilience, adaptation, and mitigation alike

We all know that climate disruption is here. It’s arrived at doorsteps around the world and directly impacts millions. Many of the direct consequences of climate disruption are on our health. This is no less true in the United States than it is in in the developing world. The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s draft Climate & Health Assessment highlights the many impacts of climate on Americans ranging from vector-borne diseases to food safety to extreme weather, that potentially leads to thousands of illnesses and premature deaths per year.

Global experts are speaking out. The World Health Organization (WHO) last year declared that climate disruption  poses “unacceptable risks” to global public health. Seeing that exposure to indoor and outdoor pollutants killed more than 7 million people—one in eight deaths worldwide, the WHO is   urging strong action to address climate disruption. And the United Nations Conference on Climate Change draft resolution — the outline for the international climate agreement taking place in Paris later this year — calls for a universal right to health and sustainable development.

The impact of climate disruption on global health is not only well-documented but widely recognized. As our climate worsens, there will be more malaria, asthma-impacting pollutants, fatal heat waves, and poor water quality. We also know that these risks will disproportionately impact those least able to adapt, especially women. Women make up 70 percent of the world’s one billion poorest people. This poverty compromises their ability to recover from extreme weather events and adapt to climate disruption. When natural disasters hit, women are 14 times more likely to die than men. Typically having less access to medical care, property ownership, and employment, women are less likely to be alerted to a pending disaster, know how to swim or climb, and they often stay behind with children when evacuated. Of the twenty-six million people displaced by climate change since 2010, twenty million are women.

Threats to public health are one of the many reasons we need to act on climate.  But climate disruption doesn’t have a one-sided answer. Relying solely on solar power and seawalls will not solve the climate crisis. But if we take a holistic approach, we find that acting on health helps our climate.  Below are five proposed health interventions that improve climate resilience, adaptation, and mitigation alike:

1. Make our communities healthier. We cannot combat global climate disruption without healthy communities. 
Promoting the safe use of public transportation and active movement – such as cycling or walking as alternatives to using private vehicles – could reduce carbon emissions, and cut the burden of household air pollution, which together cause about 8 million deaths per year. By realizing the targets under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, we can fulfill the right to respect and dignity and combat climate disruption.

2. Consider environmental health. Increasingly variable rainfall patterns and depleting snowpack are expected to affect fresh water supply.
Water scarcity already affects more than 40 percent of the global population and is expected to rise. A lack of safe water can compromise hygiene and increase the risk of diarrheal disease, which kills about 760,000 children under age five each year. In extreme cases, water scarcity leads to drought, famine and migration. Interventions such as improved water and sanitation and providing point-of-use disinfection and sufficient toilets and latrines would reduce the current burden of disease and ameliorate the health impacts of decreasing water supplies

This requires health and climate professionals coordinating, brainstorming, and implementing side-by-side

3. Fulfill reproductive health and rights. Only half of women in developing regions receive the recommended amount of health care they need.
More than 225 million women globally do not have access to contraceptives they want. Adolescent girls and young women face gender-based inequalities, exclusion, discrimination and violence, which put them at increased risk of acquiring HIV. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explicitly cites women’s health as a consideration in adaptation, stating that “meeting the need for family planning services in areas with both high fertility and high vulnerability to climate change (such as the Sahel region of Africa) can reduce human suffering and help people adapt to climate change” (AR5, WGII).

4. Strengthen health systems.
With anticipated increases in vector-borne diseases such as malaria and stresses on infrastructure from floods and natural disasters, it is critical to have a health system that is prepared to respond to these impacts. Health-system-strengthening measures such as training medical professionals on emergency response; securing safe, dry storage for vaccines and equipment; and supporting capacity for primary care and preventative medicine will go a long way toward protecting communities from the impacts of climate disruption.

5. Build partnerships. 
These types of integrated public health measures to tackle climate disruption cannot happen on their own. Health considerations must be incorporated into national resilience strategies to support public health solutions, and climate scientists need to recognize not just the burden but also the opportunity of public health. This requires health and climate professionals coordinating, brainstorming, and implementing side-by-side.

These interventions are critical. Let’s get to talking about them!

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