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Climate change and its effects on our health

We have all heard that climate change has a devastating effect on the intricate balance of nature. Climate change does not mean only rising temperatures. As per the United Nations, the Earth is an interconnected system and changes in one area will have lasting effects on other regions. Among other effects, climate change can be seen in intense droughts, water scarcity, severe fires, rising sea levels, flooding, melting polar ice, catastrophic storms and declining biodiversity.

The World Health Organization (WHO) believes that the climate crisis threatens to undo the last fifty years of progress in development, global health and poverty reduction, and is only deepening the segregation between people of different economic backgrounds. The people with lower income, apart from usually living in more vulnerable regions, are also largely uninsured, therefore the effects of climate change are pushing them even closer to poverty. This means that the effects of climate change are mostly felt by the world’s most vulnerable and at risk populations.

The effects of climate change can have an influence on our everyday life – on our health, housing, ability to grow food, travel etc. WHO calls climate change the biggest health threat for humanity and states that climate change affects the social and environmental determinants of health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter.

In light of these effects, almost 200 Parties around the world have adopted the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement is a legally-binding treaty, with the goal of the treaty being the limitation of global warming below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has then been invited to create a Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emissions pathways. According to its latest report, if we continue at this rate, the threshold of 1.5°C will be reached by 2040. It’s important to note that some changes to global warming are inevitable, yet even the 1.5°C threshold is not considered safe.

Climate change
Figure: An overview of climate-sensitive health risks, their exposure pathways and vulnerability factors. Climate change impacts health both directly and indirectly, and is strongly mediated by environmental, social and public health determinants. Source: WHO

Climate change can impact health in a variety of ways – it can lead to death or injury, caused by extreme weather events, such as extreme heat, flooding or storms. It can also lead to heat-related illnesses (such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke and even cardiovascular failure), respiratory illnesses such as asthma, water-borne diseases such as cholera, salmonella and gastrointestinal illnesses among others. Climate change can also increase zoonoses, which are diseases which can be transmitted from animals to humans. Extreme weather events can also lead to vector-borne diseases, malnutrition and food-borne diseases. It can also increase the cases of non-communicable diseases and have a negative effect on mental health.

Researchers report that 5 million deaths a year are linked to climate change. The findings are based on data from 2000 to 2019. By region, annual deaths related to abnormal temperatures were: Asia, 2.6 million; Africa, 1.2 million; China, 1.04 million; Europe, 835,000; United States, 173,600; South America, 141,000; India, 74,000; United Kingdom, 52,000, and Australia, 16,500. (Source: U.S. News)

In addition to this the World Health Organization has also reported that between 2030 and 2050, 250 000 additional deaths per year are to be expected due to the effects of climate change, cause by health conditions such as malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.

Image: News articles from various media outlets

In their most recent report, the IPCC highlights some climate adaptation measures, undertaken in other sectors that have a positive effect on the health and wellbeing of people:

  • Adaptive urban design that provides greater access to green and natural spaces that promotes biodiversity, improves air quality, and moderates the hydrological cycle; it also helps reduce health risks associated with heat stress and respiratory illnesses, and mitigates mental health challenges associated with congested urban living.
  • Turning to vehicles using renewable energy mitigates Green House Gas emissions, improves air quality and lowers risks of respiratory illnesses.
  • Policies and designs that facilitate active urban transport (walking and bicycling) will reduce emissions, improve air quality, and generate physical and mental health benefits for residents.
  • Improved building and urban design that foster energy efficiency improve indoor air quality, reduce risks of heat stress and respiratory illness.
  • Food systems that emphasize healthy, plant-centered diets reduce emissions in the agricultural sector while helping in the fight against malnutrition.

There are many great examples of cities, adapting their infrastructure to accommodate the effects of climate change, which end up having beneficial effects to citizen’s health and wellbeing. Such examples include Vienna, famous for its visionary floodplain, which is a also used as a hotspot for recreation, sunbathing and socializing. The city’s Wiener Linien, Vienna’s public transport operator has also converted tram and metro stations into greenhouses, which apart from promoting biodiversity, also allow commuters to hide from the heat into their shadow during the hot summer months. The city also has over 1350 drinking fountains, offering free refreshment to its citizens and tourists, located in various places such as parks, markets and playgrounds.

Another example is Aubervilliers, a region on the outskirts of Paris, which has created an urban forest out of a former car park. Trees are known for creating shade and unlike the air conditioning we are so used to turning to when we hear that the temperatures will be soaring, trees and vegetation lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade and through evapotranspiration (U.S. Environmental protection agency).

That’s why REGILIENCE is so important. This European Project aims to develop Regional Pathways to Climate Resilience and will share the most promising cross-sectoral adaptation solutions, supporting cities and regions across Europe to become more resilient to climate change. During its lifetime will facilitate the identification and upscaling of the most promising resilience solutions: supporting their replication in 10 vulnerable and low-capacity regions in Europe.