Tackling the health impacts of climate change

By Paul Fisher, Research Fellow, University of Birmingham

The Paris Climate Change Conference will begin at the end of this month and we all have our fingers crossed, hoping that the negotiations go well and governments agree to actions that will limit increases in average global temperature to 2°C above baseline. However, current temperatures already have a significant impact on the health of the population and regardless of the agreements signed in Paris temperatures will increase in the future along with the associated health burden.

A recent article in the Lancet examining 74,225,200 deaths in almost 400 locations across the globe between 1985 and 2012, showed 7.7 percent of all deaths were attributable to non-optimum temperature. This highlights the fact that even if we could miraculously reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero overnight it would still be sensible to look at putting more resources into public health interventions to minimise the health consequences of adverse temperatures. Furthermore, there are more direct impacts of climate change to consider (for example skin cancer and mental health impacts of flooding) as well as a whole host of indirect impacts (for instance malnutrition and impacts on the global economy) all of which are occurring already and are likely to increase in magnitude in the future.

Finally, most of the impacts described above are likely to impact proportionately more on the most deprived sections of society (because of greater exposures as deprived populations tend to live in hotter urban centres, increased vulnerability due to existing health conditions and decreased adaptability due to financial constraints). This will result in increasing health inequalities and issues of climate justice (as these deprived populations will tend to have a lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with their lifestyles than the rest of society).

On top of these challenges are the pressures on the NHS and public health systems in the UK. New structures have been formed, with Health and Wellbeing Boards set up in each local authority to bring key stakeholders together to improve the health and wellbeing of their local population and reduce health inequalities. Over half of the NHS budget has been put in the hands of GPs via Clinical Commissioning Groups and public health teams have transferred over from the NHS to local authorities. These sectors are generally experiencing increasing demand, cuts in resources and pressure to increase efficiency.

All these changes can be viewed simply as a threat or one can look at the opportunities to do things differently. I like to see my glass as half full and I was therefore excited to be asked to help put together a document to support Health and Wellbeing Boards, and others, ensure organisations and communities are prepared for the impact of climate change. This resulted in the document Under the Weather produced in partnership between Department of Health (DH), the Sustainable Development Unit (SDU), Public Health England (PHE), and the Environment Agency (EA).

The document was printed and a digital toolkit produced in 2014, with a second version published in 2015 (with a new section on the Climate Just toolkit and reflecting developments such as the NHS Five Year Forward View). There were two effective launch events where the previous Deputy Chief Medical Officer, David Walker, gave the keynote address. He presented the case for integrating adaptation into Joint Strategic Needs Assessments (JSNAs) and local Health and Wellbeing Strategies (HWBSs), explaining how this can help to complement local objectives to improve health and wellbeing, integrate health and care, reduce health inequalities, and meet statutory requirements. 67% of 50 delegates to these events said they either strongly agreed or agreed to the statement “I gained useable knowledge and skills which I will be able to use to help my organisation adapt to a changing climate”. There have been 3,820 downloads of Under the Weather via the SDU website and 800 copies printed distributed to stakeholders. We are currently gathering case studies of councils who have utilised Under the Weather to inform climate change adaptation action, for example, the EA are using it as part of a package of tailored adaptation work with Southend on Sea Borough Council.

The document details how different stakeholders can take action by providing:

– the evidence base;
– practical guidance;
– the economic case;
– toolkits;
– links to existing resources; and
– the key impacts presented for different perspectives (for example in urban, rural and coastal areas).

If you haven’t already, please use this resource, share with stakeholders in your area and provide feedback/case studies using the contact details on the back page.

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