Author : Aparna Roy

Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Apr 05, 2024

Climate change is intensifying existing health vulnerabilities. Placing health at the heart of the climate justice movement is thus essential for meaningful progress.

To achieve the global goal on health, place health at the heart of climate action

This essay is part of the series titled: World Health Day 2024: My Health, My Right

The Meteorological Department (MeT) of India has recently predicted an unusually high number of intense heatwaves across most parts of India in the next three months. Anthropogenic climate change is transforming ambient heat, a once ordinary aspect of the sun, into an unavoidable environmental threat. In 2023, the atmospheric carbon dioxide level reached a new high of 425 ppm, leading to the warmest decade on record from 2014 to 2023.

The impact in India is stark. According to the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change published in 2023, in 2022, 191 billion potential labour hours were lost due to heat exposure, marking a 54-percent increase from 1991-2000. In recent years, heatwaves triggered by climate change have had devastating effects on human health.

India is not an isolated case. The most severe toll of climate change falls disproportionately on nations that have historically contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions. Low- and middle-income countries, in particular, bear the brunt of health disparities. If current trends persist unchecked, the most vulnerable groups—women, indigenous populations, the elderly, and individuals with pre-existing health conditions—will suffer the most severe health consequences of climate change.

The recently concluded COP 28 has finally sought to raise the importance of health in the climate action agenda amidst the ongoing challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the escalating toll of heat waves and extreme events on vulnerable communities. ‘COP28 Deceleration on Climate and Health,’ calls for “benefits for health from deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, including from just transitions, lower air pollution, active mobility, and shifts to sustainable healthy diets”. While the commitments are commendable, addressing the deepening global inequalities in the health impacts of climate change demands a more comprehensive approach. The global climate governance must now move beyond rhetoric to delineate concrete actions.

Globally, climate change is already unleashing a multitude of impacts, intensifying existing health vulnerabilities. Besides heat waves, extreme weather phenomena like floods, and hurricanes are accelerating the spread of infectious diseases, overwhelming health systems, and depleting resources, especially in regions already at risk. Climate-related disruptions in food and water supplies are eroding nutrition and sanitation standards, leading to detrimental health effects. Furthermore, climate change is eroding critical social factors necessary for good health, such as stable livelihoods, equality, and access to healthcare and community support networks.

It is time to dismantle the silos. Global health governance must embrace climate justice principles, recognising the uneven burden of climate change on populations lacking fair access to health services and resources. Placing health at the heart of the climate justice movement is essential for meaningful progress. A recent study, “Converging Paths: Global Governance for Climate Justice and Health Equity,” published by the Observer Research Foundation, outlines crucial action points to shape the frameworks for both global health and climate governance, exploring avenues for their convergence.

1) Addressing climate change and environmental rights comprehensively in the WHO Pandemic Agreement: In October 2023, the WHO's Intergovernmental Negotiating Body revealed a draft of the WHO Pandemic Agreement, charting a unified path for nations to tackle future pandemics. This pivotal moment calls for a robust agreement that strengthens readiness, response, and collaboration in the face of infectious diseases and public health crises, while firmly linking these to climate change. Although the agreement adopts the 'One Health' perspective, integrating health within the climate change framework, it must place greater emphasis on the environmental aspects of 'One Health' to effectively address climate-driven health challenges. The agreement's interpretation must centre on equity, going beyond mere standards and data to include equitable sharing of benefits.

2) Declaring the climate crisis as a public health emergency and broadening the scope of International Health Regulations (IHR) 2005: The effectiveness of global health governance institutions is limited because of the narrow scope and framing of the IHR 2005 which further limits itself to health emergencies and communicable diseases. IHR 2005 should be expanded to encompass health risks emerging from climate change, recognising the multifaceted nature of global health threats. Prevention is not adequately addressed in these rules and environmental drivers of health emergencies are a policy blind spot.

3) Explicitly addressing health in the global goal on adaptation and increasing climate adaptation funding for healthcare: Current climate policy is disproportionately focused on mitigation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions; this approach needs a significant shift. Funding for climate adaptation is severely lacking across the board, notably in healthcare. This shortfall is amplified by the additional stress the pandemic has placed on healthcare systems, which are already struggling. These systems require substantial financial investment to strengthen their capacity to handle the escalating health risks posed by climate change.

4) Global climate governance should transform the ‘Loss and Damage’ funding: The health repercussions of climate change, particularly non-lethal impacts and mental health consequences, pose a significant challenge in quantification in monetary terms. Creating frameworks for compensation and assistance to vulnerable populations facing health losses is important to operationalise. It's imperative that the issue of 'loss and damage' is elevated to the same level of urgency as adaptation and mitigation, demanding heightened accountability from developed nations to meet their financial obligations. Establishing an ambitious Loss and Damage Fund that considers the interconnectedness of health and climate change is vital for addressing these challenges effectively.

Placing health at the core of climate initiatives and portraying climate change as a health imperative can spark heightened policy focus and public backing for climate adaptation and mitigation. Health stands as a potent catalyst for climate endeavours. Shifting the narrative from solely highlighting dire consequences to celebrating the health advantages of climate action and sustainable, low-carbon living can reshape values and inspire societal and behavioural shifts towards mitigation.

Aparna Roy is a Fellow and the Lead of the Climate Change and Energy initiative at the Observer Research Foundation

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.