Climate change and health

Climate change affects our daily lives. The climate influences the type of food we grow and eat; water availability; the way we cool our homes; and deciding where to build new accommodation for a growing and moving population. Cross-cutting all of these themes, linking climate change with food, water, sanitation, shelter and migration, is health. Ahead of the UN’s Climate Conference, COP27, in November 2022, WHO highlighted the need for urgent climate change action for health.

Climate-related health risks

Professor Dann Mitchell, Professor of climate science at the University of Bristol, explains that “Weather and climate are already impacting health; even as far back as the infamous 2003 European heatwave we know that around half the deaths could have been avoided if climate change had been halted.

“To fully understand the health impact of climate change, we must consider the exposure across short- and long-time scales. At one end of the spectrum daily extreme temperatures act immediately on the cardiovascular system, at the other end, decades or persistent warm nights act on the cognitive system”.

Risks from a changing climate include an increase in heat-related illness, respiratory illness, mental health problems and vector-borne diseases, such as dengue or malaria. Whether a disease is passed through the air, water or carried by insects, the impacts of climate and extreme weather increase the risk.

As with other climate-related risks, the most vulnerable in society are likely to be the most impacted, whether that be people with underlying health conditions or those living in developing countries where climate impacts might be greater and/or healthcare provision may be less advanced.

Image showing stethoscope and medical book.
Image: Shutterstock

Mitigate and adapt

Whilst we are already seeing the effects of our changing climate, there is still time to mitigate against the worst impacts by rapidly reducing carbon emissions. This also has additional co-benefits such as reduced air pollution which is a serious public health problem. The University of Leeds, working with the Met Office, developed a new tool for policymakers, academics and industry to see how single actions can have multiple benefits for people’s lives, including on health.

Adapting to the changes we are already seeing and will see in future, will also make society and individuals more resilient to the health impacts of climate change. This can include making sure people are aware of immediate risks, such as through severe weather warnings – the Met Office introduced a new severe weather warning for heat in 2021, reflecting the fact that the UK can expect more extreme heat as a result of climate change. Adapting homes and buildings as well as healthcare provision will also be vital to tackle climate change impacts.

During January, we will be exploring the theme of climate change and health, looking at some of the ways our health could be impacted and sharing research from the Met Office and our partners to better understand the risks and tackle the issues. Follow #GetClimateReady on Twitter to find out more.

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