How science can protect us from the health effects of climate change

The effects of climate change are already being felt around the world.

Earth is warming, rainfall patterns are changing, and sea levels are rising, increasing the risk of heat waves, floods, droughts, wildfires, and other natural disasters.

These changes make us one of the biggest health safety threats, potentially affecting the air we breathe, the quality and availability of our food and water, the risk of infectious diseases and the widespread impact on our mental health and well-being.

Although climate change is often cited as a global problem, no country or community is immune to its effects.

Here in the UK, high summer temperatures already have significant health consequences. In the summer of 2020, we have seen 2,556 universal excess deaths during the heat wave (excluding deaths from COVID-19) and it is estimated that the number of heat-related deaths is likely to triple by 2050 if no steps are taken to alleviate this.

In some parts of the UK, invasive mosquitoes and the diseases they carry have been found to cause infections in humans due to warmer temperatures.

Climate change can affect our air quality. Climate change may increase the levels of ground-level ozone or other particles that increase the risk of hospitalization for asthma, or other respiratory or cardiovascular disease.

And disruption of food production around the world, especially in the Global South, including the United Kingdom, can lead to food security and safety risks.

While many of these effects will be felt by everyone, they will disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged, further increasing health inequality.

It is clear that more and faster action is needed to understand and mitigate the risks that climate change poses to our health and health systems, and science has a key role to play in this global effort.

Climate science translation in action

Our scientists study the health effects of climate change, provide early warning and response to extreme weather events, measure the health effects of air pollution, and monitor the risks posed by changes in the distribution of vector-borne diseases or disruptions to the food system.

Working in multi-disciplinary teams means we can gain expertise in areas such as global health, emergency preparedness, resilience and responsiveness, data and analysis, behavioral science and health inequality.

Most of our work is conducted in partnership with others, from local authorities to national governments and academia, including the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Environmental Change and Health, UKHSA and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University. College London and Met Office.

We are engaged in a range of international work, for example, through our contributions to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that provides evidence for policymakers around the world.

We recently led a global science partnership for the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction Hazard Definition and Classification Review and its Hazard Information Profile supplement.

These key scientific contributions have created the idea of ​​sharing risks to inform experts working on disaster risk reduction, emergency management, climate change and sustainable development.

UKHSA is also a founding member of the Health and Climate Working Group between the International Association of National Public Health Institutions (IANPHI) and the Kochran Group. We recently co-led the conceptual development of two groundbreaking position papers in collaboration with IANPHI (Roadmap for Action on Health and Climate Change) and the WHO Regional Office for Europe (Zero Regret: Steps in Adaptation to Climate Change and Health).

Looking ahead, we are working on the fourth iteration of the health effects of climate change in the UK, a groundbreaking report that is produced in phases and last published in 2012 that is included in the UK National Adaptation Program.

The report will compile the latest UK climate change estimates and take into account the health risks posed by climate change such as weather and its extremes (temperature, floods, droughts and wildfires), air pollution, allergens, ultraviolet radiation, infectious diseases, especially vectors. Diseases (transmitted by ticks and mosquitoes), water and foodborne illness.

New aspects of the report include assessment of the role of adaptation (such as changing our living environment or behavior) in mitigating future climate-related health effects.

And as part of the National Adaptation Program, UKHSA leads the development and distribution of a single adverse weather and health plan for England to replace the heatwave and cold weather plan. It will provide updated guidelines on cold and hot weather, droughts and floods, informed by scientific evidence nationally and internationally.

Changing a step in the response to public health in our changing climate

We need step-by-step changes in our public health response to mitigate the effects of climate and environmental change on health.

This will include strengthening the scientific evidence to guide our activities, including interventions and adaptations that reduce climate health risks, as well as our understanding of whether these interventions are working.

We need to work with funders to ensure that evidence gaps are addressed and to find new ways to make evidence accessible to decision makers.

At the national and local levels, risk assessment tools as well as impact and outcome measurement are a key part of it.

And in all our endeavors we need to build stronger and deeper partnerships with our local government, national government and academia.

In the coming months, we will be combining our work on climate and health as part of a new Center for Climate and Health Protection based in the UKHSA, which will help us change the way we respond to the inevitable effects of our health. Climate is urgent.

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