Navigating Climate Change’s Impacts on Health and Business

Published: Mar 12, 2023  |  

Professor and MBA Health Director at UCL Global Business School for Health

Climate change

The climate crisis is a health crisis—particularly for children; it is also a crisis of equity. The November 2022 IPCC report highlighted increases in climate-related infectious diseases, premature deaths (caused by heat waves and air pollution), food scarcity (malnutrition caused by drought and fires), threats to allergies, mental health and well-being issues, forced migration, violence and civil unrest.

According to an article by US academics published in 2022 in Nature, climate hazards caused by greenhouse gas emissions have worsened over half of recognized human infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue and chikungunya.

Threats to human health and wellbeing

The World Health Organization has argued that “climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity.” It has estimated that between 2030 to 2050, there will be around a quarter of a million additional deaths annually because of climate-related increases in diarrhea, heat stress, malaria and malnutrition alone. The healthcare sector is responsible for almost 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions with a carbon footprint equivalent to 514 coal-fired power plants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clearly signals that climate change presents major and multiple threats to human health. Greater exposure to contaminated air, food insecurity, water, heat, floods, and lack of shelter harm our physical and mental health and wellbeing and our ability to adapt to emotional stress and physical traumas caused by climate change.

This is particularly the case for people who work outdoors, the elderly, the very young, and those with health conditions or poor living conditions which make them particularly sensitive to changes. Climate-related rises in heart and respiratory diseases, increases in pests which cause Lyme disease and West Nile Virus, and increases in poor mental health and violent crimes exacerbate existing conditions and create new problems.

Clearly, extreme hot or cold temperatures lead to greater risks of lung and heart disease, and extreme heat and sun exposure leads to increased skin cancer cases. Air pollution, exacerbated by wildfires, affects conditions like asthma and results in hospitalization. Global warming and increased rainfall help to spread diseases such as dengue and malaria.

Climate change anxiety and the impacts of climate change can result in trauma and even suicide. Extreme weather events can even result in power cuts, transport disruption, and sickness amongst healthcare workers, which reduce the effectiveness of healthcare delivery, particularly for vulnerable people in the community.

Business costs

The direct costs of climate change to health will be huge—around US$2-4bn annually by 2030. These include fires and floods damaging property and closing businesses. Indirect costs are incurred by weather extremes disrupting supply chains.

Climate changes can also be catastrophic for the agricultural, fishing, and forestry sectors when nature is destroyed. Small and medium-sized businesses are especially vulnerable as they are often resource-poor and lack resilience. 

Furthermore, climate changes adversely affect outdoor workers and sick employees cannot support a sustainable, healthy economy. Upset sleep patterns, heat stress and stroke, increased risks of accidents and premature deaths, fatigue, allergies, and dehydration, for instance, harm workforce productivity, including for those who provide healthcare services.

As we stand on this burning platform, there are significant business opportunities for clean energy, green transport, buildings, and improved food security as well as carbon reductions in health systems.

We need to take advantage of the many significant opportunities to develop green jobs, energy efficient buildings, greener hospitals, transport, preventative health and leaner, greener and more digital health services.

Prioritizing climate change-health challenges

The U.S. Congress adopted the most important public health measures ever in the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022 with US$500bn for new funds and tax breaks to stimulate clean energy, decrease health costs, and raise tax revenues. This act seeks to protect people by mitigating climate change and its effects such as air pollution as well as carcinogenic chemical contaminants.

The Office of Management and Budget has stated that the IRA “will dramatically mitigate what policymakers call the ‘social costs’ of climate change” including “avoiding negative health impacts” like premature death. 

In 2023, the UN Secretary General prioritized the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment and the rights of future generations, calling it a “year of reckoning.” COP28 will be held in UAE from November 30 until December 12, 2023.

The nexus between climate and health will continue to be highlighted in the context of climate-driven risks to health of extreme temperatures, natural disasters and changing rainfall, different patterns of infections, and negative effects arising from poor economic and social determinants of health.

Moving forward

Systems-wide approaches are needed to mitigate harms to health globally and to reduce the negative impacts on the environment of the health sector by aiming for net zero emissions. In the UK, the NHS provides excellent examples of banning volatile anesthetics for surgery which are harmful for the environment.

The greener NHS team showcases positive examples within the wider ambition of seeking to deliver a net zero health service and realize the benefits of climate action to improve health outcomes.  

The climate change-health impacts nexus is a wicked problem which requires governments, businesses, universities, and communities to share information transparently with leaders in public health to address this current and growing emergency. Gaps between the health impacts of climate changes and ESG and other investments and interventions must be reduced for all our sake.

We must also adapt our own behaviors in this climate and public health crisis. W20 in India in Delhi in September 2023 will also provide valuable opportunities for paradigm shifts in health inequalities in a country with a much-needed clean air agenda.

This problem was not created overnight, and it is going to take a coordinated, deliberate long term effort to find a way out of the environmental problems mankind has created. We must all work together to find a solution.