Twin threats: Taking stock of the intertwined crises of global health and climate change
President Joe Biden has made clear that addressing climate change is a top priority for his administration. Since January, the president has issued executive actions in pursuit of tackling the climate crisis; opened a new federal office for climate change, health, and equity; and convened two meetings of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, one of which was part of a larger leaders summit intended to rally world leaders to strengthen climate ambition in the lead-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in early November, during which countries hope to negotiate shared climate commitments.
Amid these ongoing and vital conversations, GHTC is taking stock of how global health and climate are intertwined and how innovation can address these twin issues and mitigate the impact of climate change on human health. As the Unites States prepares to engage in COP26, we hope to see continued commitments and concrete actions to combat the climate crisis, including climate-related global health challenges.
Climate-related global health risks
Climate and global health are inextricably linked: Climate change could put billions more people worldwide at risk of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases like malaria and dengue. Changing temperatures have been described as a “threat multiplier” of antimicrobial resistance, due to warm conditions being more favorable for bacterial reproduction. The climate crisis exacerbates food instability and malnutrition as a result of droughts and other extreme weather events—circumstances which also prove opportune for disease outbreaks. The threat of a “Disease X” outbreak occurring, and spreading globally, is greater than ever before due to deforestation and other climate-related risk factors.
These risks will not be felt equally around the world. Children are among the most vulnerable—and will be exposed for the longest—to health risks resulting from climate change, given their physical and cognitive immaturity. Health effects are also expected to be worse for people who are older, have preexisting medical conditions, or are living in poverty or in low- and middle-income countries. These populations are less able to insulate themselves through technology, housing, social networks, health services, and other infrastructure. Food insecurity is likely to particularly affect Indigenous communities, many of which rely on local food sources, such as fish. Women and girls, too, are often underprioritized in responses to climate-induced disasters, which can inhibit their agency and access to sexual and reproductive health services, from contraception to HIV prevention and treatment.
Existing efforts by US agencies
The US government is beginning to recognize and take on the interconnected fight against climate change and global health crises through programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and US Agency for International Development (USAID).
For example, CDC’s Climate and Health Program assists states, cities, territories, and tribes in the United States with protecting human health from a changing climate by providing data, tools, and technical guidance to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience.
NIH has launched a Working Group on Climate Change and Health aimed at addressing climate change and its health effects through research and innovation, and its National Institute of Environmental Health Services Climate Change and Human Health Program funds research aimed at understanding the health effects of climate change.
USAID conducts a breadth of climate-related work, playing a crucial role in mitigating climate change and supporting resilience against its global impact—including by strengthening resilient food systems. USAID-supported programs have worked to develop and distribute disease-, heat-, and drought-tolerant seeds as well as nutrient-dense foods. For example, to support response to climate change–induced droughts and dry climates, USAID has invested in a public-private partnership to develop a variety of drought-tolerant maize, which was used by 6 million farmers in 2016 when the El Niño drought hit Southern and Eastern Africa.
Looking ahead: What more should the US government do?
In line with its expressed priorities, the US administration should continue to sustain and expand investment in climate change innovation—embracing a comprehensive agenda that recognizes the need to not only directly improve climate health, but also mitigate its impact on human health. While US health agencies have demonstrated some capacity to take on climate action for health, there is much more to be done.
US agencies addressing climate change should consistently consider its ripple effect on global health and integrate a broad range of health-related climate innovation into their work—for instance, through emerging infectious disease surveillance, health and environmental systems capacity strengthening, or research to further understand both threats and the ways they interact.We will never achieve global health goals without also protecting our environment, and we won’t succeed in preventing the climate crisis’s worst impacts without bolstering investments in global health. GHTC looks forward to seeing continued commitment and global leadership from the US government to advance innovation to address these deeply intertwined challenges.