Foreign Policy Blogs

A New Tool for Climate Change and Global Health?

Hurricane Sandy Flooding Avenue C 2012

This week, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) published a new tool to address the growing health risks associated with climate change. The “Atlas of Human Health and Climate” explores the exacerbation of “diseases of poverty” (including those related to food and water insecurity), emergency medical situations related to extreme weather, and increased disease outbreaks due to higher temperatures–such as the spread of malaria. The publication is meant to guide public policy to prevent or prepare for the threat of climate-related public health problems.

The report pinpoints three messages:

  1. Climate change will affect global disease burdens by shifting both the geographies in which certain diseases occur and the seasons in which they are prevalent.
  2. These climate-related health risks are exacerbated by poverty, lack of health infrastructure, and other factors.
  3. Information about climate change is being used to create climate-resilient health systems–but more must be done, and more quickly.

The atlas also discusses the effects that climate will have on infectious diseases, such as meningitis, malaria, or cholera, underlining that “some of the most virulent infections are also highly sensitive to climate conditions.” The report cites that temperature, rainfall, and humidity change the rates of reproduction, biting, and survival of malaria- and dengue-carrying mosquitoes, for example. The atlas recommends that public health and meteorological officials work together to predict how rainfall, temperatures, and other factors will affect disease burdens.

As extreme weather and rising temperatures become more of a reality for the world’s population, we will need new partnerships–such as that between the WHO and WMO–to prevent, prepare for, and better understand how a warming planet will affect all of us. Beyond the loss of biodiversity, rising sea levels, and water and food insecurity, there will be repercussions that few of us anticipate now. For example, Hurricane Sandy drove rats out of the New York subway tunnels to establish new habitats above ground–which could have an affect on public health in the city. We may also see a reverse in the success that the global health community has made in combating malaria and other diseases. As we have seen in the past few years, and perhaps even more dramatically this year, climate change is upon us now–not in some distant future. While we work to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, we must also prepare for our new reality.


Photo credit: By david_shankbone, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0




Julia Robinson

Julia Robinson has worked in South Africa at an NGO that helps to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and in Sierra Leone for an organization that provides surgeries, medical care, and support to women suffering from obstetric fistula. She is interested in human rights, global health, social justice, and innovative, unconventional solutions to global issues. Julia lives in San Francisco, where she works for a sustainability and corporate social responsibility non-profit. She has a BA in African History from Columbia University.