Three ways that climate change is impacting our health and what you can do to help

Climate change represents the greatest threat to global health of the 21st century. 

The impacts of climate change – such as rising sea levels, droughts and heatwaves – are already harming people’s health and leading to an increased risk of a range of health issues.  

Figure 1 below outlines some of these health impacts: 

The negative health impacts of climate change already span all world regions, with no population unaffected. However, the impacts of climate change are disproportionately impacting the most marginalised around the world by exacerbating existing inequalities. It is also often the groups that have least contributed to the climate crisis (through emissions) that most feel its effects.  

In this article, we go into more detail on three ways that climate change is impacting our health and most importantly – what you can do to get involved to help change that.  

Malnutrition  

The World Health Organization estimates that around 45% of deaths among children under five are linked to undernutrition with most of these occurring in low- and middle-income countries.  

This increase in malnutrition in part has been due to the impacts of climate change causing extreme weather events such as rising sea levels, droughts, flooding and wild fires. All of which are having a detrimental effect on agriculture and food security, leading to this issue.  

Kate Munro, Head of Advocacy at Action Against Hunger UK, said: “The world’s poorest are paying the price for a climate crisis they played almost no part in creating. Right now, we have a climate related hunger crisis engulfing countries from Mali to Madagascar that don’t have the health infrastructure to cope with an explosion in child malnutrition.” 

Non-communicable diseases 

Non-communicable diseases (or NCDs), are diseases that cannot be passed from person to person. These include cardiovascular diseases, autoimmune diseases, strokes, heart disease, cancers, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, Parkinson’s disease, osteoarthritis and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Climate impacts such as heatwaves, wildfires, increased rainfall and droughts all play their part in increasing non-communicable diseases as well as worsening existing health conditions.  

Prof Kent Buse, Director of the Healthier Societies Program at The George Institute for Global Health, said: “The UN Secretary-General called global heating a code red for humanity – it is also a code red for the health and wellbeing of all life on earth. We know global heating increases non-communicable diseases and mental health conditions, jeopardises sustainable development and is hitting those least responsible the hardest. We need immediate action from all governments to limit global emissions.” 

An increase in non-communicable diseases can put further strain on existing health systems and prove fatal to those in more vulnerable and remote communities who don’t have access to the right health care.  

Kent added: “COP26 needs to aspire to the kind of climate justice that ensures global heating does not harm health in the communities it affects most.” 

When healthcare is most urgently needed – for example, during a climate-related extreme weather event – it may not be possible to provide it due to damage to the physical buildings from which healthcare is provided or due to disruption to water or electrical supplies.  

In other instances, climate change may impact supply chains, leading to shortages of essential medicines. 

We need health systems that are resilient to climate impacts and able to continue providing essential health services at times when they are most urgently needed.  

Mental health 

In addition to the physical health impacts, climate change can impact psychological wellbeing – particularly among those with pre-existing conditions or those living in areas particularly impacted by climate change. 

Extreme weather events such as wildfires and storms lead to injuries and long-term disability. But people are also suffering with the terrible mental health impacts from suffering such traumatic events. Loss of food security, homes and livelihoods can lead to increased anxiety, stress and depression.  

Anxiety towards future climate-related impacts is also a growing phenomenon and can impact health workers as well as those living in climate-sensitive areas. 

There is a rising distress particularly amongst young people who are experiencing grief and fear as a result of the inaction on climate change by governments and world leaders.  

These mental health impact health impacts are currently costs that are unaccounted for in government planning. However, this can be counteracted by creating more green space for people to walk and cycle, making homes more energy efficient and taking active steps to protect our environment. 

What you can do to help 

As the UK is set to host the Presidency of COP26, the UK can and should lead by example by championing universal health coverage and strengthening health systems, making it a global priority in the face of the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Given the world’s focus on the current climate crisis, COP26 is a critical opportunity for world leaders to invest in health systems that are able to respond to the health crises exacerbated by climate change. 

Through the Healthy Futures movement, we hope to unite campaigners, just like you, to call on the UK Government to achieve our goal of health for all. 

This is a new era for business not as usual. We all have a part to play and we all need to show up. 

Join the Healthy Futures movement and learn how to get involved in the fight against climate change affecting our health and the planet’s health.