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How to assess climate-related health risks

In order for national governments to initiate measures to adapt to climate variability and change, as agreed under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), policymakers require sound assessments of the current and potential future impacts of climate change, including on population health. However, assessments that analyse the impact of climate change on health are relatively rare. Improving the capacity to analyse climate-related health risks is important to enable informed policy and planning.

Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments provide key information for decision-making

The impacts of climate change are usually appraised in so-called Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments. These assessments identify the main health risks that climate change poses in a particular country or region, including for its most vulnerable populations and areas; review health system and community resilience, including weaknesses and gaps; and consider and prioritise options for adaptation. Sound assessments should consider both health and non-health-related scientific evidence and draw upon inputs from a variety of stakeholders, including community members. Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments should not be one-off analyses, but form part of an iterative process that includes monitoring of adaptation measures, periodic updates and regular communication with stakeholders.

Assessments can also serve other purposes

In addition to providing key information for selecting adaptation measures, Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments can also serve a range of other purposes. An assessment that focuses on a particular region, for example, can be used to involve communities in planning adaptation measures and to build local capacities. In other cases, assessments are designed to generate a baseline against which changes in disease risk and adaptive behaviour can be monitored or to improve evidence and understanding of the linkages between climate change and health. A sound assessment can also strengthen the case for investment in adaptation measures and be used for advocacy. Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments supported by German Development Cooperation illustrate a range of approaches that can be taken.

Information gaps and uncertainties need to be accommodated

What sounds relatively straightforward in theory often proves difficult in practice. Studying the impact of climate change on health requires datasets which bring together information on weather/climate and health outcomes on the same spatial (geographical) and temporal (years or seasons) scales. Very often these are not available. In addition, it is difficult to predict how regional climate systems and related ecosystems will develop and how communities will adapt in response. Despite these limitations, it is important that policymakers initiate adaptation measures as soon as possible to protect their populations. Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments need to accommodate these uncertainties, for example through scenario planning, to provide a basis for decision-making. Given the current information gaps, collecting more relevant climate and health data is also essential.

Practical guidance on conducting assessments

The following documents provide step by step guidance on how to approach vulnerability and adaptation assessments:

These resources can be adapted for use in the health sector:

These examples show how German Development Cooperation used these tools and put this guidance into practice.

© Photoshare / M Ponir Hossain
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