Integrating climate resilience into health systems

Health systems play a pivotal role in ensuring the well-being of individuals and communities globally.

However, the escalating impacts of climate change pose unprecedented challenges to their resilience and ability to protect public health. As highlighted by the 2021 Lancet Countdown report, climate change stands as the largest global health threat of the 21st century, underscoring the urgent need to integrate climate resilience into health systems.

In this editorial, we delve into the profound implications of climate change on health systems and outline policy and programming priorities to fortify primary healthcare and ensure health security in a changing climate.

Climate impacts on health systems affecting health security

Climate change presents multifaceted challenges to health systems, ranging from extreme weather events to shifts in disease patterns. These challenges manifest in increased mortality rates due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, and heat stress.

Moreover, climate-induced disasters disrupt healthcare access, exacerbate resource losses, and hinder emergency response efforts. The intersection of climate change and existing health vulnerabilities accentuates the pressing need for integrated approaches to mitigate risks and bolster health system resilience.

Addressing the nexus of climate change and health security necessitates proactive measures to enhance health system performance and adaptability. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) advocates for integrated, systems-based approaches to fortify health systems, especially amidst global challenges like COVID-19 and climate change.

Through multisectoral collaboration and community engagement, health systems can anticipate and respond to climate-related stressors, ensuring equitable access to essential services and improved health outcomes, particularly for vulnerable populations.

Priorities for policy and programming

To enhance health system resilience in the face of climate change, policymakers and practitioners must prioritise three key areas:

  1. Operationalising climate and health plans: National strategies should align with local coordination efforts to ensure equitable financing for climate resilience initiatives. Development partners play a crucial role in mobilising resources and supporting multisectoral cooperation to effectively address climate-related health risks.
  2. Leveraging routine information and climate services: Integrating climate data into health information systems enhances early warning systems and enables timely responses to climate-related hazards. Collaboration between meteorological services and health sectors optimises resource allocation and supports evidence-based decision-making.
  3. Tailoring response plans to the local context: Primary healthcare and health system response plans should be tailored to address local climate challenges and community needs. Engaging indigenous and marginalised communities in the planning process fosters social capital and resilience at the grassroots level.

Incorporating a people-centred approach to climate resilience

Integrating a people-centred approach to climate resilience can significantly enhance the effectiveness of health system interventions.

By prioritising the well-being and empowerment of individuals and communities, health systems can better address climate-related health risks while promoting equity and inclusivity. Examples from various sectors illustrate the benefits of such an approach:

  • Inclusive policy design: Policies can be designed to benefit low-income and vulnerable populations, as seen in Indonesia’s implementation of cash transfer programs to offset higher energy prices for poor households.
  • Just transition: Ensuring a just transition for workers and communities affected by climate action, such as Spain’s agreement to phase out the coal industry while providing support for affected regions, promotes social equity and resilience.
  • Health benefits: Transitioning to clean energy sources and promoting plant-based diets not only mitigates climate change but also leads to improved public health outcomes, particularly in developing countries.
  • Community resilience: In the realm of community resilience, the imperative lies in investing in measures tailored to adapt and fortify localities against climate-related challenges. Take, for instance, Bangladesh’s proactive utilisation of early warning systems, a strategic move that has significantly reduced fatalities from cyclones. Meanwhile, initiatives in Togo stand as testament to the power of community engagement, with focused efforts directed towards women and youth. Through ecosystem-based projects, such as those enhancing water availability and security, Togo exemplifies the transformative impact of grassroots involvement in climate adaptation endeavours.
  • Employment opportunities: The discourse surrounding climate action extends beyond environmental preservation to encompass promising avenues for employment and economic advancement. Notably, the renewable energy sector emerges as a beacon of opportunity, boasting millions of job opportunities worldwide. This surge in employment underscores the tangible benefits of transitioning towards sustainable energy sources. Moreover, the potential for climate-smart agriculture to catalyse job creation and income generation, especially in developing regions, underscores the multifaceted dividends of aligning climate initiatives with socio-economic progress.

Investing in the resilience of health systems is paramount to safeguarding public health and ensuring health security in the face of climate change. By integrating climate resilience into policy and programming efforts, countries can mitigate the adverse effects of climate change on health systems and foster adaptive and responsive healthcare systems.

Through strategic investments and collaborative action, we can build a future where health systems are equipped to withstand the challenges of a changing climate and protect the health and well-being of all communities.