Health and Healthcare Systems

A ticking clock: Are our health systems prepared to address the impacts of climate change?

People wading through a flooded area.

Extreme flooding caused by climate change is set to continue to impact human health. Image: UNSPLASH/Misbahul Aulia

Tamer Samah Rabie
Lead Health Specialist, World Bank's Health, Nutrition and Population Global Practice
Stephen Dorey
Health, Nutrition, and Population Consultant, World Bank
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Global Health

  • The latest IPCC report has warned of the health impacts of climate change.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the international community is able to mobilize and act quickly in the face of a global health crisis.
  • The World Bank is promoting 'climate-smart healthcare', by which countries strengthen their health infrastructure to be more resilient to impacts of climate change.

For World Health Day, we reflect on the scale of the climate challenge we face and consider what are the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic which can help countries rise to the health challenges posed by the climate crisis.

In April 2022, for the sixth time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report warning us about the health impacts we can expect to see now and in coming decades. The picture is grim and should kick us into action. A recent IPCC report already warns that globally, the percentage of people exposed to deadly heat stress is projected to increase from 30% today to up to 76% by the end of the century. If we are lucky just under half of the world’s population will be exposed to deadly heat stress.

This is just one of the climate threats that impact human health. There are numerous others like floods, droughts, windstorms, sea level rise, and extreme precipitation. The list is much longer, and poverty and inequality will only exacerbate the impacts of these shocks.

What can response to pandemics teach us about how to deal with the climate challenge?

The World Bank is firmly focused on these critical global challenges. Climate Change is the greatest global problem the world needs to overcome. Global pandemics – such as COVID-19 – are also very complex problems so what can we learn from our experiences in addressing them that could help us deal with the health risks we can expect from the climate crisis?

What are some of the lessons that we can already draw from? The global COVID-19 response showed us that it is possible for the governments and the international community to act quickly and at scale. The critical lesson here is that we can mobilize resources when needed. On our part, the World Bank has provided $12 billion to more than 100 countries to help them respond to the health impacts of COVID-19 and increase vaccinations. The second encouraging lesson is that international institutions, when faced with a global emergency, can adapt to enable them to move more quickly and to focus on very specific health challenges.

We need climate-smart health care

The “COVID-19 and Climate-Smart Health Care: Health Sector Opportunities for Synergistic Response to the COVID-19 and Climate Crises”, jointly prepared by the World Bank and the Climate Investment Fund (CIF), outlines some of the climate-smart solutions.

It showed that by adopting low-carbon, climate-resilient approaches in their COVID-19 responses, countries have a chance to turn the pandemic challenge into an opportunity to strengthen their health infrastructure, so it is more resilient to impacts of climate change as well as to tackle the perennial threat of communicable diseases. Emergency interventions that promote sustainability and decarbonization can become the building blocks for how climate-smart Universal Health Coverage systems are designed going forward. A few examples of impactful interventions:

  • The Gambia was able to lower its carbon footprint for medical waste disposal.
  • Ghana built a sustainable vaccine cold chain that supports COVID-19 immunization while enabling the country to honor its climate commitments.
  • India has built a climate-resilient, solar-powered facility for COVID-19 testing, isolation and treatment to improve and safeguard the continuity of healthcare delivery.
  • The Philippines’, People’s Survival Fund supports local governments’ efforts to adapt for climate change, including through initiatives that combine pandemic preparedness and climate adaptation.
  • Yemen, which is facing many other challenges besides COVID, it was possible to deploy an Electronic Integrated Disease Early Warning System (eIDEWS) as part of its COVID-19 response.

These are great examples, but it is clear that they are just the tip of the iceberg of what is needed. We need to do much, much more, and do it much, much quicker.

Recognizing what we do and don’t know

The first step is knowledge and we already know enough to act. What we don’t know enough about is where to act and how much this will cost. Supported by CIF and other partners the World Bank has two key analytics seeking to answer these questions.

Firstly, a growing program of Climate and Health Vulnerability Assessments (CHVAs). These provide a country-level and sub-national assessment of human health risks from climate change and outlines the public health policies and programs that can be implemented to reduce these risks.

Secondly, the question on the costs is being tackled through the development of a Climate and Health Economic Valuation Tool (CHEVT) which models the climate-attributable health burden of selected health risks and the economic implications of these. The tool helps to estimate country-level and sub-national current and future climate-related health burdens and economic costs. This translates the problem into the language that governments can work with.

Focusing on climate-smart healthcare, gives countries their best chance to develop resilient health systems capable of withstanding future climate shocks, thus protecting the health of individuals and communities. The World Bank aims to increase its work on this agenda and is committed to support countries with operational and analytical projects and tools.

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