Health and Healthcare Systems

This Earth Day we consider the impact of climate change on human health

A beach ball of planet Earth on a field of grass, celebrating Earth Day

The health outcomes of climate change are highlighted this Earth Day. Image: Unsplash/Guillaume de Germain

Shyam Bishen
Head, Centre for Health and Healthcare; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
Annika Green
Climate and Health Lead, World Economic Forum
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Extreme Weather Events

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • Earth Day takes place every year on 22 April when we are encouraged to come together to work on solutions to give our planet a healthier future.
  • Climate change is one of the biggest challenges to the health of our planet, which also impacts human health worldwide.
  • By taking action to mitigate climate change, we can safeguard the well-being of current and future generations and preserve the beauty and diversity of life on Earth.

By 2050, climate change will place immense strain on global healthcare systems, causing 14.5 million deaths and $12.5 trillion in economic losses. This was the warning from the Quantifying the impact of climate change on human health report published in January 2024 by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Oliver Wyman,

As we celebrate Earth Day, it's essential to reflect on the beauty of our planet and on the challenges it faces, particularly concerning climate change. The environmental effects of climate change are widely discussed, but its impact on human health is significant and often overlooked.

Here, we delve into the profound effects climate change has on our well-being and explore why addressing these issues is crucial for the health of planet Earth and all of its inhabitants. There are five key issues related to climate change that are already impacting human health.

1. Extreme weather events

Climate change intensifies extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, heatwaves, floods and droughts. Forty million people in Africa are living in severe drought conditions and droughts are on the rise in more temperate climes too. Almost 40% of the lower 48 states in the United States and 17% of the European population are facing drought, threatening food and water security.

Overview of droughts impact on health outcomes Image: Quantifying the impact of climate change on human health, published in January 2024 by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Oliver Wyman

These extreme weather events can have devastating consequences on human health, leading to injuries, displacement and even loss of life. Increased heatwaves, for example, can exacerbate heat-related illnesses and strain healthcare systems. Heat waves also come with a huge economic toll. It is estimated that $7.1 trillion of productivity could be lost by 2050 as a result of heat waves.

2. Air pollution

The burning of fossil fuels and other human activities contribute to air pollution, which is exacerbated by climate change. Wildfires increasingly are making the news headlines because they cause immense destruction of property and loss of life and livestock, but they also aggravate air pollution. Poor air quality is linked to respiratory diseases, such as asthma, bronchitis and lung cancer. Additionally, pollutants, such as particulate matter and ozone, can worsen cardiovascular health, leading to heart attacks and strokes. Air pollution could lead to 6 to 9 million premature deaths per year by 2060.

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3. Vector-borne diseases

Climate change affects the distribution and behaviour of disease-carrying vectors, such as mosquitoes and ticks. Warmer temperatures and altered precipitation patterns create favourable conditions for the spread of vector-borne diseases, like malaria, dengue fever, Lyme disease and Zika virus, to moderate and previously less affected climate zones, such as Europe and the United States.

These diseases pose significant threats to public health, especially in vulnerable communities with limited access to healthcare. By 2050, an additional 500 million people may be at risk of exposure to vector-borne diseases.

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4. Food and water insecurity

Changes in climate patterns disrupt agricultural systems, leading to decreased crop yields, food shortages and compromised food safety. In Sub-Saharan Africa, southern Asia and Central America, around 80 million people will be at risk of hunger by 2050.

Moreover, extreme weather events can contaminate water sources, contributing to waterborne diseases, such as cholera and dysentery. Food and water insecurity not only jeopardize physical health but also contribute to malnutrition and widening socio-economic disparities.

5. Mental health impacts

Climate change-induced disasters and environmental degradation can take a toll on mental health too. The loss of homes, livelihoods and communities due to natural disasters can cause psychological distress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Additionally, the uncertainty and existential threat posed by climate change can lead to eco-anxiety and feelings of helplessness.

If climate change continues to impact human health across these five vectors, it is predicted that the total cumulative healthcare system costs to provide treatment for diseases caused by climate change could reach over $1.1 trillion by 2050. North and Central America are expected to have to cover nearly half the cost of this because of higher hospitalization and treatment costs in these regions. And, with climate-related disasters disproportionately impacting Asia, it will also have to shoulder a lot of this financial and medical burden

Addressing the health impacts of climate change requires urgent action at individual, community and global levels. Transitioning to renewable energy sources, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, promoting sustainable agriculture and investing in resilient healthcare infrastructure are crucial steps in mitigating these challenges. Furthermore, prioritizing adaptation strategies and enhancing public health preparedness can help communities withstand and recover from climate-related disasters.

This Earth Day, let's recognize the intrinsic connection between planetary health and human health. By taking decisive action to mitigate climate change and protect our environment, we safeguard the well-being of current and future generations and preserve the beauty and diversity of life on Earth. Together, we can build a healthier, more sustainable future for all.

Healthy and resilient societies

The World Economic Forum has been active in climate action for over a decade, including initiatives such as the Alliance for Clean Air, the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders and the Forum's work towards nature-positive industry sector transition, amongst others.

These workstreams and activities have focused on climate change mitigation and transition towards net-zero conditions. However, it is recognized that historically, there has been a critical underinvestment in the health implications of climate change, with only 0.5% of multilateral climate funding allocated towards the protection or improvement of human health.

The launch of the Forum’s Climate and Health Initiative at the start of 2023, ahead of the first COP meeting with a dedicated health day, was designed to address this lack of focus on health.

The Initiative’s mission is to help build a healthier and more resilient society to the health impacts of climate change through multistakeholder and cross-sector collaboration and systems transformation. The initiative aims to achieve this through three strategic pillars:

1. Advocacy and visibility

Convene and amplify voices to advance a unified global approach by building a multisector community of thought leaders to deliver a high-impact outreach and engagement campaign.

2. Evidence gathering to catalyze action

Map the research and data on the impact of climate change on health, with a focus on identifying the most critical gaps in understanding and how partners can address these gaps in knowledge.

3. Resilience and preparedness

Identify and accelerate evidence-based approaches to mitigating the health impacts of climate change across sectors. Unlock finances and incentivize climate and health investment.

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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 Healthcare SystemsNature and BiodiversityClimate Action
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