Opinion: every policy decision made by government should consider the implications for climate change and health

Here's a list for you: pest infestations, overflowing sewerage, unemployment, chronic stress, heat stroke, heart attacks, cholera, the plague. It might sound like the beginning of an apocalyptic novel, but for some, this is the reality of how climate change and extreme weather is impacting their lives and their health.

So what are health sectors around the globe doing to adapt to these changes? With such devastation and huge financial implications, one would assume that responding to climate impacts on health would be a top priority of most governments. In reality, not a lot is being done.

One reason is the difficulty of attribution and making scientific connections that state with a high degree of confidence and certainty that a particular health event or outbreak is unequivocally the result of climate change. With so many other determinants of health, it is challenging to attribute a health outcome to one weather event, let alone climate change, typically analysed over a 30-year period.

From RTÉ One's Six One News, WHO 2019 report says air pollution is the single biggest environmental risk

But should this difficulty prevent governments and health sectors from responding to the health impacts of climate change? Absolutely not. Countries such as Ethiopia, Nepal and South Africa have developed national climate change and health adaptation plans. In Ireland, the Department of Health will have to prepare a Sectoral Adaptation Plan under recommendation from the National Adaptation Framework due by the end of September this year.

However, guidelines, plans and strategies communicating a health sector’s response to a changing climate need not only be grand guidelines on a national scale. Regional responses can be powerful in identifying locally-specific risks and impacts of climate change on health, whilst identifying and targeting vulnerable groups in the regions and we have prepared a framework for doing just that.

Health is often the bottom line, the issue that everyone everywhere can relate to. The determinants of population health are so interlinked with other sectors such as employment, food safety, the environment, housing and budgets. The Helsinki Statement on Health in All Policies from the World Health Organisation states that impacts of decisions on health should be considered across sectors and in all policies to improve public health and achieve health equity. This concept is supported by the Institute of Public Health in Ireland.

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report by Kevin O'Connor on smog in Dublin in 1987

Air pollution, global warming and climate change know no geographical nor social boundaries and are deeply interlinked with such sectors as transport, infrastructure, food production, careers, tourism, business and public security. Given that climate change, just like health, is so interlinked with many different government sectors, we propose that there should be a consideration of health and climate change in all policies.

By adopting this approach, every policy decision made by governments would consider the implications of the policy for climate change and population health because it is not logical to focus on one without the other given their connectedness. With Ireland woefully not on track to meet its emission reduction targets of 20% by 2020, urgent action is needed, not only for the sake of our environment but for the sake of our health too. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ