UN Shows Where Health and Climate Change Intersect

The state of the environment concerns many people for selfish reasons. It’s not just the environment's health that warrants attention, but also the way an unhealthy environment can affect our wellbeing. A new United Nations (UN) educational tool helps map out how climate change can and will impact human health. From flooding to malaria to scorching hot days, the effects are varied and dramatic.

Atlas of Health and Climate was produced by the World Health Organization (WHO), the public health arm of the UN, in conjunction with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). With sections covering areas like Infections, Emergencies and Emerging Environmental Challenges, and chapters entitled Meningitis, Drought and UV Radiation, it all sounds very imposing and urgent. But the document is not meant to scare, but rather to educate decision makers about the very real challenges society will face as climate change worsens.

The preface, penned by Margaret Chan, director general of the WHO and Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the WMO, states, “It is our hope that the Atlas of Health and Climate will serve as a visual ‘call to action’ by illustrating not only the scale of challenges already confronting usand certain to grow more acutebut also by demonstrating how we can work together to apply science and evidence to lessen the adverse impacts of weather and climate and to build more climate-resilient health systems and communities.”

Three key messages communicated by the Atlas begin with the fact that climate can affect the where and when of disease. This means that climate change poses a threat to health security on a large scale. Second, the nexus of health and climate is influenced by factors ranging from the physiology and behavior of individuals, the environmental and socio-economic conditions of populations, and the coverage and effectiveness of health programs. Last, the authors describe how climate information is being used to protect health through risk reduction, preparedness and response in both affluent and developing countries.

Examples of the impact of both action and preparedness are offered in the Atlas. For example, the death toll from similarly intense cyclones in Bangladesh was reduced from around 500,000 in 1970, to 140,000 in 1991, to 3,000 in 2007, all as a result of improved early warning systems and preparedness. On the side of action yet to be taken, the Atlas describes how the lives of approximately 680,000 children per year could be saved by shifting to clean household energy sources to reduce air pollution. The entire document can be found here: www.wmo.int/ebooks/WHO/Atlas_EN_web.pdf.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, December 2012