Why climate change affects health

Villagers purify water in rural Malawi

Climate change has direct and indirect effects on health

The ef­fects of cli­mate vari­abil­ity and change are di­verse and dif­fi­cult to pre­dict: while some re­gions ex­pe­ri­ence heavy rain­fall, storms and flood­ing, oth­ers suf­fer dev­as­tat­ing droughts and some face com­bi­na­tions of these phe­nom­ena. Chang­ing weather pat­terns pose a se­ri­ous threat to peo­ple’s health. While ex­treme weather events such as heat­waves, storms or nat­ural dis­as­ters can lead di­rectly to ill­ness, in­jury or death, most ef­fects of cli­mate change on health are more in­di­rect. For ex­am­ple, cli­mate change af­fects the avail­abil­ity and qual­ity of the wa­ter peo­ple need for drink­ing and for sub­sis­tence and com­mer­cial farm­ing which, in turn, in­creases the risk of wa­ter- and food-borne dis­eases and can lead to mal­nu­tri­tion. Changes in tem­per­a­ture and rain­fall pat­terns also af­fect the con­di­tions for mos­qui­toes to breed, thereby in­flu­enc­ing the trans­mis­sion of vec­tor-borne dis­eases like dengue and malaria.

Vulnerable populations are most affected

The impacts of climate change on health are unevenly distributed, both geographically and socially. How severely individuals are affected by climate change depends on local environmental conditions, such as population density and the availability of food and water, and on their socio-economic circumstances, including their financial resources, health status, access to basic services, gender and age. Because already vulnerable populations are more susceptible to the effects of climate change and have limited capacity to adapt to climate-related stress and changes, climate change exacerbates existing socio-economic and health-related challenges.

Communities and health systems need to become more resilient

Whether and how climate change affects people’s health status also depends on the resilience of communities and health systems, i.e. on their capacity to prepare for and flexibly respond to climate-related challenges.  Resilient health systems can adapt to climate-related stress and protect and improve people’s health even in the context of a changing climate. Resilient communities are aware of climate-related health risks, take preventive measures against them and adapt their practices accordingly. Given this, governments should carefully assess and aim to increase community and health system resilience against the effects of climate change.

The time to invest in adaptation measures is now

Girl with mosquito net in Dundube Kadambo, Malawi

To address the effects of climate variability and change the international community is undertaking both mitigation and adaptation measures. The former are focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions while the latter encompass a broad range of measures to deal with effects on specific sectors, such as agriculture or health. Various global financing facilities, including the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), the Green Climate Fund (GCF), and the Adaptation Fund (AF), provide funding for adaptation measures.

About this toolkit

With this set of materials, the toolkit aims to contribute to the evolving knowledge base on health sector responses to climate change.

Related materials and useful tools

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