Countries are 'exposed and vulnerable' to health impacts of climate change

Harriet Barber
The mayor of Venice blamed recent flooding on climate change - AFP

The majority of countries around the world are not prepared to deal with the health impacts of climate change, despite mounting evidence of the threat to health posed by the warming planet. 

A report by the World Health Organization (WHO), launched as world leaders convene in Madrid for the United Nations climate change summit, has assessed the readiness of 101 countries to cope with the health impacts of extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods and droughts.

The report – which looked at countries across all the regions of the world – warns that countries are “exposed and vulnerable”, with only half those surveyed having a health and climate change strategy in place. 

And out of these, only 38 per cent have any kind of finance in place and less than 10 per cent have fully implemented and resourced their plans.

There has been growing alarm over the threat climate change poses to human health has been mounting over recent months. 

A study by the Lancet in November warned that climate change would “shape the wellbeing” of an entire generation unless the world meets Paris climate agreement targets to limit warming to well below two degrees centigrade. 

And tropical medicine experts warned earlier this year that climate change is likely to trigger mass migration, food and water shortages and the spread of infectious diseases.

Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, co-ordinator of the climate change and health programme at the WHO, said: “Climate change is potentially the greatest health threat of the 21st century. It threatens to undermine the progress we’ve made on global health in previous decades.”

He added: “Over the last few years countries have really sat up and taken notice of the health risks of climate change, or at least it’s been forced up them by the impact of extreme weather events.”

The WHO estimates that between 2030 and 2050 climate change will lead to approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.

Just under half – 48 per cent – of countries in the report had surveyed the major climate related risks. Those that had had identified heat stress, injury or death from extreme weather events, and increase in food-, water- and vector-borne diseases, such as cholera, dengue or Zika as major risks. 

A lack of money was reported as the most common barrier to implementation of a mitigation strategy – with three quarters of the countries citing difficulties in accessing international climate finance, and over 50 per cent lacking capacity to prepare proposals.

Other barriers included human resource constraints and technical capacity.

Dr Campbell-Lendrum said that only about 0.5 per cent of international climate finance is currently spent on health. 

“Health has been seen as a separate issue... In general governments are not good at connecting different issues. International climate finance is dealt with by ministers of the environment or development agencies,” he said. 

“Climate change is undermining all the environmental determinants of health and should be forcing us to work better to make connections,” he added. 

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said: “It’s a moral imperative that countries have the resources they need to act against climate change and safeguard health now and in the future.”

The UK was not one of the countries studied but earlier this year the Committee on Climate Change warned that health was one of many areas where the country was unprepared.

The WHO report focuses on the poorest countries but also looked at richer countries such as Germany and Sweden.

Dr Campbell-Lendrum said that richer countries were better placed to cope as they had stronger health systems. 

But he added: “Richer countries are better protected but even they have significant health impacts. They have a big air pollution health impact and they’re also struggling from the health impacts of heat waves.” 

The report did find some positives – 60 countries have developed an early warning system and health sector response plan for flooding, 50 for storms, 42 for heatwaves, 38 for drought and 31 for air quality.

Dr Maria Neira, director of the department of climate change, environment and public health at the WHO, said: “Health is now paying the price of this climate crisis. Our lungs, our brains, our cardiovascular systems are very much suffering from the causes of climate change.”

Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security