By Caroline Fouvet
A changing climate not only impacts weather events and infrastructure, but also presents a major public health challenge. Whether direct or indirect, cimate change impacts can have disruptive effects for human health and wellbeing, and as future climatic trends suggest both higher average temperatures and more regular extreme events, the impacts of climate change on human health cannot be ignored.
Direct health risks include weather-related morbidity, increased respiratory illness and infectious diseases, climate change has broader, indirect repercussions for health, including food insecurity and mental health. Adaptation measures must, therefore, encompass a health component; a point gaining recognition as more and more governments include it in their national strategies.
A recent study reviewed 10 OECD countries’ policies in that respect and highlights their varied approaches to addressing the issue. By highlighting current gaps and suggesting possible strategies, the study provides useful insights into health adaptation to climate change.
To better evaluate strategies in this area it is important to identify adaptation means for the health sector. This amounts to taking preventive measures that reduce risk exposure, prevent the onset of illnesses, reduce morbidity, and minimise climate impacts. Although adaptation is often referred to as a local strategy, national governments have a role to play through integrating health adaptation into high-level policy frameworks. Their resources and guidance can strengthen and harmonise adaptation planning and generate ripple effects at the subnational level.
The research – focusing on the current health adaptation strategies of Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States – examined three main dimensions of national-level health adaptation: cross-sectoral collaboration, vertical coordination, and national health adaptation planning. These categories are, however, necessarily open to interpretation: vertical coordination can,for instance, be put into place differently across countries, such as through working groups, networks, partnerships, or consultation.
The study presents four main results:
- National strategies remain broad, with 50% of surveyed countries addressing general health risks, infectious diseases, as well as heat-related risks. The ‘general’ character of these stategies suggests that national initiatives are intended to set the framework for more specific local actions. Whilst population-level health programmes, such as protecting people from heatwaves, generally emanate from national governments, interventions that address locally manifest issues, such as flood mitigation, are often conducted at a regional level.
- Almost two thirds (62%) of reviewed initiatives are ‘groundwork actions’, compared to 38% of adaptation actions. Among the latter, a combination of five adaptation types are being implemented, typically in the following order: capacity building, information, management, planning and policy, information, and practice and behaviour.
- Intersectoral adaptation planning is a common feature across the surveyed countries. Most of the initiatives are designed and implemented by national public health agencies in partnership with other bodies, with some actions co-implemented with organisations outside of health sector. This is the case in France, where four health agencies and the Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea monitor vectors and host reservoirs.
- Whilst health is an integrated part of most countries’ national adaptation frameworks (with the exception of Ireland), they exhibit varying levels of detail. Whereas Australia’s adaptation plan provides general adaptation objectives, Switzerland’s plan further outlines responsible agencies and financing for each intervention.
The study’s results present a picture of uneven interpretations of – and approaches to – health adaptation across the 10 countries studied. Their disparate state structures and degrees of centralisation might account for some of these differences, however, rendering it problematic to identify any single benchmark approach.
Drawing-out the similarities and differences between OECD countries in health adaptation planning shows that the issue is widely acknowledged by governments, even if they address it in a plurality of ways. Identifying best practices – referenced to climatic contexts and trends, governmental strutures, and risk and vulnerabilities – and bridging gaps are essential for devising coherent and effective health adaptation frameworks.
Read the full study by clicking here.