Climate Change and Health Beyond 2015: The Sustainable Development Agenda

This blog is part of the Wikiprogress Environment Series
Global Health Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison
The Outcome Document from the recent Rio+20 Summit, “The Future We Want”, recognises that health is both a precondition for, and an outcome of, sustainable development. Climate change affects health through a myriad of exposure pathways, each presenting simultaneously both challenges and opportunities for sustainable health and development.
Interventions targeting either adaptation or mitigation of climate change, therefore, can have multiple health and societal benefits – the key is to find root points of leverage where a single policy might have numerous beneficiaries.
The relationship between health and all three original (1992) Rio Conventions – on Climate Change, Biological Diversity, and Desertification was recently documented in “Our Planet, Our Health, Our Future”, a collaborative effort between the World Health Organization (WHO) and all three Rio Conventions. In particular, the report revealed both risks and interdependencies. Climate change will directly lead to net negative health impacts, including through extreme weather events, spread of vector-borne disease, diarrhoeal disease, food security and malnutrition. Natural capital, such as biodiversity, underpins ecosystem services – upon which health and societal wellbeing depend – but are threatened by climate and land use change. Just a few measurable benefits that ecosystems provide mankind include flood protection, disease regulation, and water purification. Desertification leaves populations vulnerable to water quality degradation, water scarcity and droughts, decreases agro-ecosystem productivity and increases food scarcity/malnutrition.
If human society could advance from a carbon-intensive economy to a green economy, human health opportunities would abound. For example, reducing fossil fuel combustion might not only reduce the extent of climate change, but more immediately such intervention would improve air quality, and if done in the transportation sector, could potentially increase ‘active’ transport that subsequently would lower the risk of obesity and associated chronic diseases. This is just one policy example of how addressing climate change can both enhance sustainable development and save lives.
Sustainable development remains the central context of the post-2015 development agenda. Yet, at this juncture it is critical to acknowledge how health is inextricably linked to ecosystems and our earth’s climate; this awareness is especially salient in the UNFCCC process toward developing a set of post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With the centrality of health as both an input and outcome, and climate change as a cross-cutting issue, a new level of inter-sector awareness and collaboration is warranted, especially as revised targets and indicators are being drafted for the SDGs.
Furthermore, establishment of appropriate indicators will help ensure that interventions in any sector will lessen, rather than add to, the disease burden. WHO, in fact, is now strongly advocating a holistic “Health in All Policies” approach which accepts that population-wide health is determined by many sectors beyond solely health. The role of weather variability and health is obvious for thematic areas such as water and sanitation, food security and nutrition, and disaster management, as well as climate change specifically. Outcome indicators might include: annual mortality rates from climate-sensitive diseases (i.e. the sum of all vector-borne disease, diarrhoeal disease, malnutrition, and weather-related disasters etc.); household dietary diversity scores as an output indicator for food security; and percentage population with access to weather/climate-resilient infrastructure (such as water sources and hygienic sanitation facilities for example).
Health should also be a key consideration for other areas. Representative outcome indicators in the area of energy, for example, might include the percentage of households using only modern, low-emissions heating, cooking and lighting technologies that meet emission and safety standards; or measuring the burden of disease attributable to household air pollution could be another outcome indicator. Indicators for the reliability of energy supply to health facilities are also important. In jobs, healthy workforces are a precondition for sustainable development, and indicators such as the proportion of workplaces that comply with national occupational health and safety standards (an output indicator), or measuring occupational disease and injury rates (an outcome indicator) merit consideration.
Clearly the health of our human population depends on the healthy conditions across all societal sectors and natural systems. Climate change, now solidly tied to our  carbon-intensive economy, challenges all communities working on core elements of sustainable development. Human health has been relatively sidelined in the UN Framework Conventions, but now needs to be better interwoven into the process of defining the next set of global development goals.
Professor Jonathan Patz
This article first appeared on Outreach Magazine 

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