Climate change represents an existential threat to global health, sustainable development and to planetary health. It is a challenge that is impeding the ability of individuals to lead healthy lives.
With their responsibility to address emerging challenges, global health funders and NGOs are pondering strategies for healthcare systems to tackle climate change. The bad news is that a significant amount of work lies ahead.
The good news is that we are – mostly - already undertaking these efforts in our quest for universal health coverage.
The world is striving to attain this by 2030. While we are lagging behind this timeline, we are steadily advancing in securing substantial funding and improving the delivery of primary healthcare services for everyone. This means establishing healthcare systems with the ability and adaptability to effectively respond to emergencies – precisely what is essential in the face of a changing climate.
Climate change represents an overarching factor that will impact every facet of public health and the systems that underpin it. Heatwaves, wildfires, floods, and storms are increasing in scale and frequency. Changes in weather patterns are bringing vector-borne diseases to new geographies.
Zoonotic disease outbreaks are becoming more frequent. And these are just a few of the human health threats from climate change.
Not all nations and communities will be equally impacted. Those countries with the most fragile healthcare infrastructure will find it particularly challenging to respond effectively. Rather than diverting crucial resources away from universal health coverage and ongoing initiatives, those responsible for global health program’s design should incorporate a climate lens into the current work.
To best serve the interests of communities, countries and civil society, it is essential to safeguard and enhance the systems, initiatives, and investments that ensure access to dependable, high-quality essential health services.
Strengthening healthcare systems and reducing inequities
Our sector must adopt a climate-conscious perspective when evaluating all our actions and financial commitments. What adjustments should we make to guarantee today’s work survives tomorrow’s challenges?
How can we adopt a ‘do no harm’ strategy to ensure that our actions do not inadvertently exacerbate the very issues we are striving to resolve?
The simultaneous and coordinated adoption of both mitigation and adaptation measures across multiple sectors is required urgently. Ministries of health should spearhead comprehensive adaptation strategies within, and beyond the health sector, including at the ministries of agriculture, housing and urban, planning, environment, finance, energy and education.
Adaptation strategies must be articulated in line with broader aims to strengthen healthcare systems and to achieve universal health coverage. Also, efforts should move beyond isolated band-aid solutions and focus on reducing the systemic inequities that are the root of poor health outcomes in marginalized groups.
The pandemic magnified systematic vulnerabilities, and climate change will magnify them further if they are not meaningfully tackled.
Adaptation strategies that are informed by social determinants of health framework are key. Urgent gaps at country levels remain. There is a critical need to work with governments on national climate change-readiness strategies and to support data analysis and decision-making in countries where climate change is already shifting the burdens of disease.
These are cornerstones of climate adaptation efforts.
Most of all, climate vulnerable countries require adequate financial support and human resources to fully implement their climate strategies. This is an urgent gap that needs to be filled.
International organizations are well placed to provide technical assistance to climate vulnerable countries in their journeys to develop, optimize and deliver on bold, multi-sectoral mitigation and adaptation measures.
A global solution
The global effort to achieve universal health coverage has reached a critical juncture, demanding unwavering commitment. We should not abandon the strides we've made or divert our focus from this vital cause.
However, we cannot achieve this by working on our own. We invite everyone to join us—governments, environmental organizations, and private enterprises—in prioritizing health as central to climate actions. And universal health coverage stands as our collective solution.