As we hear a clarion call for the world to “build back greener,” those of us working to achieve SDG 3 (good health and well-being) have a timely opportunity to make our support for communities and health systems more resilient.
This article suggests three practical ways that health organizations and service providers can move toward the center of climate action and serve as key assets in building climate-resilient communities.
By Shirley Ko, Director of Global Health, Pact, and Roger-Mark De Souza, Vice President of Sustainable Markets, Pact
Yet another IPCC report published this week reminds us that we are at a critical crossroads to slow the rate of global warming. As COVID-19 gradually shifts to an endemic phase, and we hear a clarion call for the world to “build back greener,” those of us working to achieve SDG 3 (good health and well-being) have a timely opportunity to make our support for communities and health systems more resilient.
COVID-19 and the concurrent climate crisis underscore how human health is intricately connected to the health of our environment. Climate change creates severe heat, more intense and frequent flooding, and adverse temperature and seasonal weather patterns that influence vector-borne diseases. These climate risks directly affect physical and mental health outcomes. They also trigger a chain reaction of socio-economic stresses that compound threats to health in vulnerable communities, such as diminished food security, disrupted livelihoods and mass migrations.
Many measures to counter climate change, likewise, bring substantial health benefits. Switching to clean and renewable energy sources can reduce harmful air pollutants that are associated with lung and heart diseases and 4.2 million premature deaths a year. A growing body of evidence links exposure to air pollution to adverse maternal and newborn outcomes. Initiatives that accelerate uptake of renewable energy and offset greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions contribute positively to overall public health.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), climate change threatens to undo the last 50 years of progress in global health. But health programs have long been at the margins of climate action. Below, we suggest three practical ways that health organizations and service providers can move toward the center of climate action and serve as key assets in building climate-resilient communities.
First, spur community-driven innovation by women and girls to mitigate health impacts of climate change.
Health programs often prioritize the needs of women and girls because in many settings, they face increased vulnerabilities and barriers to accessing health information and services due to unequal gender norms and other socio-cultural factors. Many health interventions emphasize empowering women and girls to lead healthy lives through promoting their education, building their agency and social support networks, and meaningfully engaging with them in advancing health access. Women play a central role in families and communities; in addition, they represent 70% of the global health and social care workforce, delivering care to around 5 billion people.
Health organizations can build on this investment in women and girls by extending their knowledge and skills to address the twin problems of health and climate change. In our work, we at Pact see women and adolescent girls in communities from Colombia to Cambodia already demonstrating leadership, creativity, resolve and resilience in improving their conditions and building a more sustainable future.
Second, strengthen the health workforce in the areas most vulnerable to climate impacts.
Frontline health workers have been innovative and adept at providing lifesaving services to communities affected by COVID-19. In addition to physicians, nurses and pharmacists, this workforce also includes community health workers and volunteers who often serve as critical lifelines for remote and/or marginalized populations.
Health organizations should account for the health needs that will come from future climate change in workforce planning decisions, with the aim of enhancing community preparedness and recovery from climate-related emergencies. This can be done through understanding and integrating climate information from early warning systems to inform the deployment and training of health workers in climate-vulnerable areas, and ensuring they are equipped with knowledge, skills and tools for addressing climate-related health risks and adapting service delivery in response to climate change.
Community-based health workers are uniquely positioned to leverage their deep knowledge and trusted relationships with diverse populations to communicate about the climate crisis and related risks in a way that is tangible and relevant to health and well-being.
Third, when addressing financial barriers to health access and promoting universal health access, promote climate-resilient livelihoods.
Our sector has had success in using community-based approaches to address challenges related to population dynamics, access to health services and climate change impacts. These approaches have been documented to improve livelihoods by helping communities to develop long-term strategies to manage climatic shocks and stresses, while providing increased access to integrated health services that have a climate-minded approach to emerging health threats.
A community-based approach can also promote public health care delivery systems at the local level while providing for legal frameworks to integrate climate-minded approaches to address emerging health threats. Current programs supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other donors contribute to greater resilience at the individual, household and community levels.
These are just some of the practical ways that global health practitioners can move from the margins to become true partners in the fight to mitigate climate risks. With committed and concerted action across sectors, together we can prevent the worst predictions from becoming reality. We must act now to protect our health and future.