Health and Healthcare

Which health areas are impacted by climate change and where is more guidance needed?

Extreme weather events, such as flooding, can impact human health in myriad ways.

Extreme weather events, such as flooding, can impact human health in myriad ways. Image: Climate Visuals Countdown/Moniruzzaman Sazal

Camilla Corte
Project Fellow, Impact of climate change on health, World Economic Forum
Vanessa Racloz
Lead, Climate and Health, World Economic Forum
Annika Green
Climate and Health Lead, World Economic Forum
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Health and Healthcare

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Climate change impacts human health directly by causing/worsening health conditions, or indirectly by affecting social/economic dimensions.
  • Research has identified health areas likely to be impacted by climate change – highlighting key gaps in guidance on how to tackle these issues.
  • The World Economic Forum aims to set up multi-industry stakeholder groups to develop solutions that address these areas of concern.

Climate change significantly impacts human health, which is increasingly evident through the escalation of heatwaves, heightened air pollution, and the proliferation of infectious diseases. Failure to act will worsen these issues, posing graver risks to both current and future generations' well-being. Over the next decade, environmental risks are set to dominate global challenges, all being directly related to, or consequences of, climate change.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve healthcare systems?

Despite their significant health impact, there are many areas which lack guidance or policies which address these issues. As part of the Climate and Health initiative at the World Economic Forum, and in collaboration with L.E.K. Consulting, work was undertaken to support the definition of guidance to tackle the impact of climate change on health by cataloguing research efforts towards health areas in preparation for multi-industry stakeholder collaboration.

  • Evidence landscaping is the first step in channelling efforts towards health areas impacted by climate change and requiring urgent action. For example, increasing guidance on how to optimise the resilience of healthcare infrastructure and services is key to improving overall health outcomes.
  • While the healthcare sector has a particularly critical role to play, other sectors – including energy, transportation, water and sanitation, agriculture and food systems – are critical contributors in increasing resilience. All sectors can benefit from improvements in practice, by limiting roadblocks such as supply chain issues or productivity losses, and overall contribute to better human health.
  • Guidance needs to provide effective and actionable recommendations for business, in collaboration with other stakeholders. The Forum aims to build an active community of multistakeholder and cross-sector actors to help shape high impact solutions on topical areas in the nexus of climate and health.

Climate change is a risk to human health

Through a comprehensive literature review, health areas have been identified where climate change is most likely to harm human health with severe consequences. Documents reviewed are published by key organizations, such as the World Health Organization, World Meteorological Organization, World Bank, United Nations, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), and the Planetary Health Alliance.

Evidence was collected for the high-impact areas using databases such as PubMed, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and publications posted on the websites of over 60 leading organizations focused on climate and health. About 13,000 documents were identified by the search.

The research was framed around four climate change themes outlined in Figure 1 (below).

Climate change themes: extreme weather, air quality, food and water, vector ecology. Source: LEK.
Climate change themes: extreme weather, air quality, food and water, vector ecology. Image: LEK

The evidence was categorised by region outlined in Figure 2 (below). Overall, research distribution is consistent across geographies but the number of mentions is higher than average for the topic of food and water in Africa, for vector ecology in South America and for extreme weather in Asia and Oceania. These findings indicate relevance and importance of specific climate change challenges faced by each region and inform targeted guidance development and action.

Evidence matches categorised by region and climate change area. Source: LEK.
Evidence matches categorised by region and climate change area. Image: LEK

All evidence was categorised as “actionable” versus “non-actionable”; whereby actionable evidence provides guidance on how to address the impact of climate change on health. Of the 13,000 relevant documents, about 40% provided guidance to either the private or public sectors.

The research identified five “unmet need” areas which lack adequate guidance and require further attention, and five “hot topics” areas where existing efforts should continue, given the high impact of climate change on these areas. Ten health areas with different levels of guidance are outlined in Figure 3 (below).

Ten health areas with different levels of guidance. Source: LEK.
Ten health areas with different levels of guidance. Image: LEK

Areas that particularly stand out include the lack of guidance on reducing the impact of extreme weather events, food and water quality and availability, and vector-borne disease surges on healthcare infrastructure and services, as well as the continuing efforts towards alleviating the impact of climate change on mental health and social inequality.

While the healthcare sector has a particularly critical role in addressing these areas, other sectors also play an important part in supporting change. For businesses, climate change has implications on supply chains and productivity and can also impact workforce health, operations, and finances. To improve outcomes both for businesses and for population health, effective and actionable interventions for all industry types as well as multi-stakeholder collaboration are critical. The Forum aims to drive engagement from all sectors to ensure climate-resilient health systems.

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Mobilising action to protect human health

This work is the first step of an ongoing project, which aims to increase awareness of the impact of climate change on health and build collaboration in developing and adopting guidance for action. The findings will be leveraged to narrow down efforts towards the most important areas identified, for targeted guidance development and action.

Going forward, the work will bring together perspectives from industry, the public sector, international non-profit organizations, and academia through working groups which will be announced at the Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos this January.

The working groups will support evidence gathering to aggregate current data on health and climate across sectors, they will support the generation of insights to guide and mobilise action to protect human health, and they will contribute to the development of tools and resources for improved and evidence-based decision-making to protect population health.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Health and HealthcareDavos AgendaGlobal HealthClimate ChangeClimate and Nature
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