Climate change is not a distant threat. It is a present reality already making it harder for human beings to live healthy lives. As the sector responsible for addressing emergent human health threats—including those caused by climate change—many global health funders and NGOs are wondering how to go about preparing the world’s health systems.
The bad news is that there is much to do. The good news is that we are (largely) already doing it in the pursuit of universal health coverage (UHC).
Right now, the global community is working to achieve UHC by 2030. Though we are behind schedule, we are making substantive progress in the funding, design, and delivery of primary health care for everyone. That means health systems with the capacity and resilience to meet diverse needs and respond to emergencies—exactly what we need for a changing climate. If you’re worried about human health and climate change, you should be worried about UHC.
Climate change is a cross-cutting factor that will touch every aspect of public health and the systems that support it. Heatwaves, wildfires, floods, and storms are all increasing in scale and frequency. Changes in weather patterns are bringing vectorborne diseases to new geographies and populations. Zoonotic disease outbreaks are becoming more frequent. And these are just a few of the human health threats from climate change.
Of course, not all countries and communities will be equally impacted. Those countries with the weakest health infrastructure will be least able to cope. The world needs health systems and workforces that can surge to meet demand and adapt to new threats. Rather than directing critical resources away from UHC and other ongoing efforts, funders and designers of global health programs should try to apply a climate lens to current work in progress and see the direct relationship between these initiatives.
Communities, countries, NGOs, and funders would all be best served by preserving and strengthening the systems, programs, and investments that create access to reliable, high-quality essential health services.
Centering climate adaptation
Our sector needs to view all our actions and investments through a climate lens. What shifts must we make to ensure today’s work survives tomorrow’s challenges? How can we take a “do no harm” approach to ensure we aren’t contributing to the very problems we aim to solve?
At PATH, we are conducting research and developing evidence to support our government partners as they strengthen their adaptation and mitigation capacities. For instance, we are working with governments on national climate change-readiness strategies and supporting data analysis and decision making in countries where climate change is already shifting the burdens of disease.
We are also looking inward, examining the environmental impact of our own operations. In 2020, we developed and began implementing a plan to reduce water usage in more than 20 PATH offices. We also began calculating carbon footprint baselines for each office. Eventually, this work will feed into a comprehensive climate impact assessment and response plan for each office.
These climate-focused objectives represent a small fraction of PATH’s impact. As we advance them and others, we remain steadfast in all of our work, knowing the best way to adapt to climate change is to ensure everyone, everywhere has access to the care it takes to live healthy lives free of crushing medical financial burdens.
The global effort to achieve UHC has never been more urgent. We must not turn our backs on progress nor shift attention away from this important movement. We invite everyone to join us—governments, environmental groups, and private companies—in centering health in climate actions. Climate change is our collective problem. UHC is our collective solution.