The World Health Organization (WHO) found that climate change will affect the social and environmental determinants of health, which are clean air, safe drinking water, and sufficient food and secure shelter.
Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, and heat stress. WHO projects that the direct damage costs to health (excluding costs in health-determining sectors, such as agriculture, water and sanitation) are estimated to be between $2-4 billion (R40.12 billion) a year by the end of the decade.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded last year that if we are to limit health impacts and prevent millions of climate change-related deaths, we must limit temperature rise to 1.5°C.
Past emissions have already made a certain level of global temperature rise and other changes to the climate inevitable. Global heating of even 1.5 °C is not considered safe. However, every additional tenth of a degree of warming will take a serious toll on people’s lives and health.
The WHO advised that areas with weak health infrastructure, mostly in developing countries, will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond and that reducing emissions of greenhouse gases through better transport, food, and energy-use choices, can result in improved health, particularly through reduced air pollution.
While the effects of climate change would be felt by everyone, it is the people whose health is being harmed first and worst by the climate crisis, who contributed least to its causes, and who are least able to protect themselves and their families against it. These include people in low-income and disadvantaged countries and communities.
The climate crisis threatens to undo the last fifty years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction and to further widen existing health inequalities between and within populations. It severely jeopardises the realisation of universal health coverage (UHC) in various ways – including by compounding the existing burden of disease and by exacerbating existing barriers to accessing health services, often at the times when they are most needed.
The global health body estimates that over 930 million people globally spend at least 10% of their household budget on health care. With the poorest people largely living without health insurance or medical aid, health shocks and stresses already currently push around 100 million people into poverty every year, with the impacts of climate change worsening this trend.
Climate change is already impacting health in a myriad of ways, including by leading to death and illness from increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, storms, and floods, the disruption of food systems, increases in zoo-noses and food-, water-, and vector-borne diseases, and mental health issues.
Furthermore, climate change is undermining many of the social determinants of good health, such as livelihoods, equality, and access to healthcare and social support structures.
These climate-sensitive health risks are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, including women, children, ethnic minorities, poor communities, migrants or displaced persons, older populations, and those with underlying health conditions.
“Although it is unequivocal that climate change affects human health, it remains challenging to accurately estimate the scale and impact of many climate-sensitive health risks. However, scientific advances progressively allow us to attribute an increase in morbidity and mortality to human-induced warming and more accurately determine the risks and scale of these health threats,” WHO said in a press release.