Climate change and its impact on health – a crisis at the crossroads

One of the biggest health hazards threatening the global population today and thereby, overall wellbeing and future sustainability is, climate change. The profound effects of climate change are increasingly evident in the deteriorating air quality, rising temperatures leading to more frequent heat-related incidents, noise pollution, extreme weather events, and unprecedented rise in sea levels. Some of its direct implications on human health are increase in respiratory ailments such as asthma, and heat-related conditions like heatstroke, heat exhaustion and dehydration. Further, with increase in occurrence of (flash) floods, landslides and cyclones, waterborne and infectious diseases like cholera, typhoid, leptospirosis as well as vector borne diseases like malaria and dengue are on the rise. Consequently, mental health is being risked due to the deteriorating physiological health conditions.

The adverse effects of climate change are further exacerbating immense strain on eco system services thereby hindering the system’s ability to respond. Additionally, it is also exerting pressure on coping strategies like addressing food security, access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and maintaining clean air. Regions with weak infrastructure and inadequate health care facilities are at the greatest risks and are expected to bear the maximum brunt of climate change. Underdeveloped nations along with developing ones will need utmost priority and assistance to tackle changing climate conditions and their adverse effects, thereafter. An important issue that will be at the forefront arising out of climate change is, global poverty.  According to a recent study by the World Bank, an estimated 132 million people – of which ~66 million live in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – have been projected to plunge into extreme poverty by 2030. Alarmingly, 44 million of this 132 million will experience extreme poverty primarily due to health-related issues that have been further aggravated by the effects of climate change.

The World Bank study also states that the rising temperatures accelerated by climate change can lead to death of at least 21 million people by 2050 from just 5 health risks, vis a vis extreme heat, stunting, diarrhea, malaria and dengue.  According to WHO, 37% of heat-related deaths are directly linked to climate change, with a 70% increase in heat-related deaths among those over 65 years of age, in the next two decades. In 2020, an additional 98 million people experienced food insecurity compared to the average recorded between 1981 and 2010. WHO has estimated that the direct damage costs to health, excluding expenses in health-related sectors like agriculture, water, and sanitation, are projected to range between US$ 2–4 billion annually by 2030.

Unfortunately, children, older adults, migrants or displaced population, people with underlying health conditions, pregnant women and individuals residing in rural/remote (including those with low-wage incomes) areas are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of shifting climate patterns.

It is thereby evident that climate change poses great threats to both the planet (including flora and fauna) and human health. To avert further catastrophic health disasters in the near future, it is imperative to limit global temperatures to below 2°C, while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. While even a 2°C increase in global temperature carries potential risk, surpassing it will have irreversible consequences on people’s lives and livelihoods and the overall health of this planet.

Fostering Collaboration for Climate Health Risk Mitigation

It is imperative to build a clear collaboration between different stakeholders from government organizations to private sectors, healthcare groups to NGOs, and the civil society. For example, government organizations can build clear cut policies that strengthen healthcare sector, agriculture sector, water sector and the urban development sector. Simultaneously healthcare systems should take preventive and proactive measures and incorporate adaptation strategies that combat the increasing risks of climate change on human health. NGOs on the other hand can create mass awareness about the imposing hazards due to climate change and also ensure easy access to basic resources like food, medicine and clean water to affected populations during environmental disasters. Private sectors can pool in financial resources to create new innovations and technologies in the field of Research and Development, for climate change solutions. By embracing a collaborative approach, a resilient and sustainable path can be adopted, thereby effectively tackling the multifaceted challenges posed by climate change.

As Helen Keller rightly said, “Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much.”