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BRIEFAugust 10, 2023

Health and Climate Change

The global climate crisis poses serious risks to human health and wellbeing

Climate change is having severe impacts on human health and wellbeing. Changing climate conditions are increasing the risks of heat-related illnesses, changing the patterns of infectious disease transmission and increasing the risk from extreme weather events like floods, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes as well as hazards like air pollution. The climate crisis is also affecting basic human needs such as food security and access to safe drinking water and sanitation. People most at risk are those living in poverty, the elderly, individuals with pre-existing health conditions, and ethnic minorities.

A recent World Bank study estimated that climate change threatens to push an additional 132 million people into extreme poverty by 2030 – more than half of them in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Climate-driven health impacts are responsible for the largest increase in poverty headcount relative to other sectors pushing more than 44 million people into extreme poverty.

Climate change is a risk multiplier that affects human health in various ways. Its impacts have been steadily increasing over time:

  • Direct impacts can occur from rising temperatures, heatwaves and air pollution, which contribute to heat-related illnesses and exacerbate chronic illnesses or from extreme weather events that increase the incidence of traumatic injury.
  • Ecosystem-mediated impacts caused by changes in temperatures or rain patterns include increased risk of diseases such as malaria or dengue, transmitted by mosquitoes and other vectors. Water-borne diseases like malaria can increase following floods while shifts in agricultural practices and food safety raise threats of food-related illnesses and malnutrition. The climate crisis is also causing a threefold increase in the probability of another major virus-related event like the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Indirect impacts include mental health issues resulting from climate-related hardship, poverty or displacement as well as disruptions to food systems and agriculture that amplify food insecurity and cause rising hunger and malnutrition. Climate change also pose health threats by undermining other basic human needs, such as access to clean water and sanitation.

How can we effectively tackle the intersection of climate and health?  

Climate change exerts significant strain on health systems by increasing demand for health services. Strengthening health systems, making them more resilient and boosting capacity are crucial steps to ensure that the health sector, a first responder to climate shocks, can respond to growing health challenges and deliver fundamental services.

Countries need to invest in adaptation strategies that proactively address climate-related health impacts. They also need to develop effective early warning systems for climate-related disease outbreaks and enhance crisis preparedness by training healthcare staff, expanding health information systems and vaccines, and upgrading cold chains and other critical equipment.

The health sector is currently estimated to contribute at least 5% of national greenhouse gas emissions – mostly from pharmaceutical and medical products. The sector must embrace energy efficiency and turn to renewable energy sources to decrease its environmental footprint, including for transportation, and reduce energy costs.

What is the World Bank doing to address the impacts of climate change on health?

As the biggest financer of climate action in developing countries, the World Bank has financed $2.2 billion for climate co-benefits in health since 2016 – with 80% allocated to adaptation interventions such as urgent nutrition support, surveillance systems and emergency response centers.

In South Sudan, the Bank is helping address the health effects of floods by relocating affected health facilities and improving the delivery of health services and pharmaceutical supplies in flood areas.

In Sao Tome, we are supporting investments in solar-powered refrigerators to store vaccines and other medical supplies. In many countries, the World Bank is supporting a One Health integrated approach that combines disease surveillance – including monitoring of diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans – with interventions in agriculture, food production, and environmental protection to safeguard people’s health and prevent the next pandemic.

The Bank is also conducting a series of Climate and Health Vulnerability Assessments to help developing countries identify climate-related health risks and priority needs and support the development of country-specific adaptation measures tailored to their context to limit the health impacts of climate change. In addition, the Bank has developed a Climate and Health Economic Valuation tool to calculate the cost of inaction resulting from climate-related health impacts now and moving into the 2030s and 2050s.