The imperative for climate action to protect health and the role of education

The imperative for climate action to protect health and the role of education

Reda SadkiGlobal health

“The Imperative for Climate Action to Protect Health” is an article that examines the current and projected health impacts of climate change, as well as the potential health benefits of actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The authors state that “climate change is causing injuries, illnesses, and deaths, with the risks projected to increase substantially with additional climate change.” 

Specifically, the article notes that approximately “250,000 deaths annually between 2030 and 2050 could be due to climate change–related increases in heat exposure in elderly people, as well as increases in diarrheal disease, malaria, dengue, coastal flooding, and childhood stunting.” The impacts will fall disproportionately on vulnerable populations, and climate change “could force more than 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030.”

The article discusses major exposure pathways that link climate hazards to health outcomes like “heat-related illness and death, illnesses caused by poor air quality, undernutrition from reduced food quality and security, and selected vectorborne diseases.” It also notes that “the effects of climate change on mental health are increasingly recognized.”

Importantly, the authors argue that “opportunities exist to capitalize on environmental data to develop early warning and response systems” to help adaptation efforts. Furthermore, “investments in and policies to promote proactive and effective adaptation and reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions (mitigation) would decrease the magnitude and pattern of health risks.”

The article highlights that “transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transportation, and cities” aimed at “limiting global warming to 1.5°C” would bring substantial public health benefits. For example, “strong climate policies consistent with the 2°C Paris Agreement target could prevent approximately 175,000 premature deaths” in the US by 2030. More broadly, the authors state that “policies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the energy sector, housing, transportation; and agriculture and food systems can result in near-term ancillary benefits to human health.”

The review thus underscores that “protecting [public] health demands decisive actions from health professionals and governments” in tackling climate change through adaptation and ambitious mitigation policies that yield health “co-benefits.”

What is the role of education?

The review article presents clear evidence that climate change is already severely harming public health, with escalating threats projected, particularly for vulnerable communities. It rightly argues that responding effectively requires urgent adaptation and emissions reductions prioritizing those most impacted.

However, conventional top-down approaches to climate and health in global health are unlikely to achieve the rapid, scalable results needed. Such traditional modalities tend to be ponderously slow, generate knowledge not readily actionable, and fail to reach those on the frontlines in marginalized locales.

Building a new scientific field around climate and health may take years using conventional approaches.

What we would wish for instead is a decentralized, grassroots peer learning system that can directly empower and assist under-resourced local health workers confronting growing climate-health crises.

Specifically, a digital network interconnecting one million such frontline personnel to share granular insights on how climate change is damaging community health in their areas.

This system would facilitate collaborative design of hyperlocal adaptation initiatives tailored to each locale’s distinct climate-health challenges.

It would channel localized knowledge to shape responsive national policies rooted in lived realities on the ground.

Digital tools would amplify voices of those observing firsthand impacts too often excluded.

And participatory methods would synthesize nuanced community observations lacking in conventional statistics.

This locally-attuned, equity-oriented learning infrastructure could unlock community leadership to catalyze climate-health solutions where needs are greatest. 

It represents the kind of decentralized, rapidly scalable approach essential to address the review’s calls for urgent action assisting vulnerable groups most harmed by climate change.

Reference: Haines, A., Ebi, K., 2019. The Imperative for Climate Action to Protect Health. N Engl J Med 380, 263–273.

Illustration: The Geneva Learning Foundation Collection © 2024