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Making The Case for Global Health in Climate Action

Climate change remains “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”. Whether through direct causes (heat waves, droughts, heavy storms, and sea-level rise), or indirect impacts (vector-borne and respiratory diseases, food and water insecurity, undernutrition, and forced displacements), our health is and will be affected by the changing climate.

The climate crisis threatens to undo the last fifty years of progress in development, global health, and poverty reduction, and to further widen existing health inequalities between and within populations. It severely jeopardises the realisation of universal health coverage (UHC) in various ways. Over 930 million people – around 12% of the world’s population – spend at least 10% of their household budget to pay for health care. With the people in lower-income countries largely uninsured, health shocks and stresses already currently push around 100 million into poverty every year, with the impacts of climate change worsening this trend.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the intimate and delicate links between humans, animals and our environment”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. ” The same unsustainable choices that are killing our planet are killing people“.

Climate change is already impacting health in a myriad of ways, including by leading to death and illness from increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, storms and floods, the disruption of food systems, increases in zoonoses and food-, water- and vector-borne diseases, and mental health issues. Furthermore, climate change is undermining many of the social determinants for good health, such as livelihoods, equality and access to health care and social support structures. These climate-sensitive health risks are disproportionately felt by people in the most vulnerable situations including women, children, ethnic minorities, low-income communities, migrants or displaced persons, older populations, and those with underlying health conditions.

Addressing both climate change and its effects on health is central to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which identified separate goals for ensuring healthy lives (Goal 3) and taking urgent climate action (Goal 13). Ultimately, the climate and health nexus are at the very core an issue of equity and justice, as the long-term health impacts of climate change will be borne by the world’s low-income countries who emitted way less greenhouse gases (GHGs) and have limited adaptive capacity to prepare and respond to climate change, those who are most often excluded, including women and children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and indigenous communities.

Given this new climate reality, the global health community recognizes the need for health systems to both contribute to climate mitigation – which means reducing greenhouse gas emissions – and adaptation – which means preparing to respond to climate change’s myriad health effects.

The WHO Foundation selected climate change and health as one of its focus areas in the coming years. We aim to develop a thematic strategy for climate and health, with the hope that the Foundation’s support to this theme will power WHO and its partners to reach the Triple Billion targets of WHO’s 13th General Programme of Work (GPW13) and beyond. GPW 13 defines WHO’s strategy for the five-year period, 2019-2023 and focuses on triple billion targets to achieve measurable impacts on people’s health at the country level. It ensures that by 2023: one billion more people are benefiting from universal health coverage, one billion more people are better protected from health emergencies and one billion more people are enjoying better health and well-being.

For nearly three decades, WHO has been leading the international discourse, knowledge generation, and policy development on the links between climate change and health. Currently, WHO’s climate and health work is guided by the Global Strategy on Health, Environment and Climate Change approved by the World Health Assembly in 2019 (WHO 2019). This strategy aims to provide a vision and way forward on how the world and its health community need to respond to environmental health risks and challenges until 2030, and to ensure safe, enabling and equitable environments for health by transforming our way of living, working, producing, consuming and governing.

To be able to support WHO in the achievement of these goals, the WHO Foundation is using an iterative, exploratory, and consultative method to diagnose current gaps and identify emerging opportunities in the climate and health space that will inform the Foundation’s strategy for climate and health in the coming years.

Our work on climate and health will revolve around several key aspects:

  • Powering GPW13. Since climate and health is a cross-cutting theme that spans the triple billion, the WHO Foundation wants to boost WHO’s climate and health work under the current GPW13. Instead of a siloed approach, we are supporting a pan-WHO approach to climate and health that spans different departments and levels (from headquarters to country-level).
  • Priorities. We will define the main priorities in climate and health for catalytic health sector investment over the next three-five years. We prioritize specific areas that are pressing and emerging yet neglected and underinvested.
  • Projects. We are looking for high-impact, large-scale, long-term initiatives that can be supported by the WHO Foundation in the next decade to fill the gaps and needs identified. We want to focus on innovative ideas, quick wins, bold and high-impact projects that exist yet are hugely underinvested but can be enhanced and scaled up.
  • Partners. The WHO Foundation wants to create synergies to catalyze innovative, large-scale, and accelerated solutions to priority issues at the climate-health nexus, especially with the private sector.
  • Positioning. The WHO Foundation will position climate change as a priority area for health sector investment, and health as a priority area for climate investment. As a global health thought leader, the WHO Foundation aims at shaping the discourse and contributing to an improved articulation of the climate and health investment case.
  • COVID-19 has demonstrated the need to build capacity for emergency preparedness and our primary healthcare.
    Other key focus areas for the Foundation will be our main focus. Health equity must be made prominent (even central) in the climate and health strategy. Conversely, how can the climate and health strategy contribute to the health equity strategy? The climate and health strategy will also align with our mental health and digital health strategies

In relation to health equity, our new climate and health strategy must benefit women, children, and other marginalized groups and contribute to the achievement of gender equity worldwide.
To fulfil our mission, we are looking for partners and donors to help mobilize resources to strengthen the General Programme of Work (GPW) of WHO for a healthier, more equitable and resilient world. Climate change and health is a priority area of WHO Foundation of focus as the health argument for climate action has never been so clear.

In the lead-up to the COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health spells out that transformational action in every sector, from energy, transport and nature to food systems and finance is needed to protect people.
The 2021 Global Conference on Health & Climate Change, will convene November 6, with a special focus on climate justice and the healthy and green recovery from COVID-19.
The aim of the conference is to call on governments, businesses, institutions and financial actors to drive a green, healthy and resilient recovery from COVID-19. The Conference will support and highlight countries’ ambitious and just Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement that promote and protect health. It will also mobilize the rapidly growing movement of health professionals around the world who are now driving ambitious climate action.

Join the global conversation and register here for the event.


November 2, 2021, 18 min. read
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