RTI uses cookies to offer you the best experience online. By clicking “accept” on this website, you opt in and you agree to the use of cookies. If you would like to know more about how RTI uses cookies and how to manage them please view our Privacy Policy here. You can “opt out” or change your mind by visiting: http://optout.aboutads.info/. Click “accept” to agree.

Hands holding small globe

The recent Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change report provided the latest in an accelerating drumbeat of evidence all leading to the same dire conclusion—the cumulative impacts of climate change, both acute and long-term, are ruining our health. The diverse connections between our changing climate and the health of global communities break down along a variety of scary paths, each more complex than the next.  

Currently, one in four global deaths is linked to environmental causes, a figure certain to grow as global temperatures and extreme weather events continue to rise. We are also seeing an increase in infectious diseases due to climate change and even a resurgence of illnesses previously under control, such as malaria in the United States and dengue across Asia. In short, as climate change accelerates, efforts to address global health challenges without tackling climate factors will fall short of the mark. 

Globally, health leaders, decision-makers, and researchers are already addressing an enormous range of knotty issues, including expanding access to reproductive health services, reducing maternal deaths, tackling infectious diseases, and strengthening access to health services for vulnerable communities, against the backdrop of systems that continue to be strained by the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Factoring climate impacts into health goals adds an additional layer of complexity and urgency which can feel both daunting and amorphous. For many of us, climate change invokes a paralyzing sense of intricate, interrelated issues far beyond our control—how can any one health program or health practitioner intervene?  

Answering this question requires the global health community to urgently embrace a fundamental reorientation of how we see our work so that we can be better equipped to address the existing threat of climate change. The growing clamor for increased focus on climate within health platforms shouldn’t be seen as another special interest layered onto our existing work; rather, we have an opportunity to exercise leadership in taking a holistic approach to the interrelated crises undermining planetary and human health. 

Here are four steps to help us do that:  

1. Humanize the Climate Crisis

The global health community, perhaps more than any other, is driven by the desire to achieve equitable outcomes and contribute to better conditions for the most vulnerable among us. Nearly everyone has been directly impacted by climate change, whether it’s experiencing a flood in your community or the need to stay indoors because the air is thick with wildfire smoke. Through dialogue with the communities where we work and improving our understanding about people’s lived experiences of climate change and the complex ways it’s changing their ability to stay healthy and thrive, we will be able to assist with better adapted health services. For example, by working directly with local partners in climate vulnerable communities, we can help design methods to ensure the continuity of critical services, such as treatment for HIV and tuberculosis, when climate events occur. 

2. Sidestep Specialization Silos 

As public health practitioners, it is easy for us to focus on our individual areas of interest and expertise, whether as infectious disease experts, maternal health champions, or health systems wonks, but this approach limits us from engaging with global climate discussions and solutions. None of us will be able to achieve our desired health outcomes without also considering climate impacts. In all our domains, extreme weather events, hotter temperatures, loss of biodiversity, and changing land use will affect both the health of the communities we’re working in and our ability to deliver services. We all have unique ways of understanding and responding to public health issues which, when combined, have the potential to contribute new and integrated climate responses for our work. 

3. Embrace Creativity 

By asking ourselves provocative questions and engaging in self-reflection on why it’s hard to effectively expand narrowly targeted frameworks, the global health community can reorient itself and begin to craft creative, holistic solutions to the complex problems facing us. It will take energy and enthusiasm to ensure that health remains center stage in climate discussions. We have the knowledge that can support global planners as they integrate health into their climate strategies. We also have the expertise to guide donors in broadening their program goals and revising their funding strategies to support effective, collaborative responses. 

During a recent webinar on climate and health, my colleague, Jui Shah, Chief of Party for Inform Asia: USAID’s Health Research Program, shared how the transmission of malaria is being impacted by climate change.

Currently, malaria programs focus on collecting traditional public health data on the number of cases, diagnosis, treatment, and the coverage of key malaria interventions. Now, because of the climate crisis, national malaria programs need to expand their data sources to include environmental factors to inform changes in vector patterns. In Thailand, the national malaria surveillance system is paired with data on climate, rainfall, and the environment to take a holistic approach in understanding malaria transmission in the country. By thinking outside of our sector, we will often find that we can adapt our tools and platforms to respond to the needs of climate change. 

Watch the full webinar

4. Foster a New Paradigm  

Even if we are successful in keeping global warming below an increase of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as articulated by the Paris Agreement, key ecosystems could still be destroyed, resulting in horrific harm to human health. Advancing practical One Health-based solutions, therefore, needs to be prioritized within our climate change strategies. The concept of One Health, which views animal, human, and environmental health as linked, has gained more and more currency as the complexity of threats has expanded. It is broadly accepted by a new generation of public health practitioners but is often viewed as impractical by planners and donors.  The global health community needs to adapt to respond effectively to new and emerging challenges, including the accelerating range of non-communicable diseases attributed to a variety of environmental and climate stressors. We need to address that shortcoming. It’s time to pull One Health down from the realm of a beautiful, conceptual framework and incorporate that thinking into our actions and strategies.  

International declarations, such as the forthcoming health and climate ministerial declaration to be announced at the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP28) in December, are important and necessary—but only if they are comprehensive, bold, and actionable. Countries must be supported—and pressured if need be—to embrace the declaration as a critical framework for coordinated funding and action. At the same time, the global health community must work towards developing concrete solutions that replace mere rhetoric and lean into our role in preparing our communities for the complicated health and climate challenges ahead. 

To support a more equitable, healthy, and prosperous world, we need to step into a leadership role on climate. The time is now. I’m excited to attend COP28 to experience the first-ever day focused on health. After 28 years, it feels long overdue, presenting an opportunity for us all to embrace.  

Learn more about RTI's COP28 Events, RTI's Center for Climate Solutions, and RTI's Global Health Portfolio

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Alisha Smith-Arthur (Director, Public Health Preparedness and Global Health Security) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.