In 1972, the United Nations General Assembly designated June 5 as World Environment Day, marking the first day of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Today is the 50th anniversary of World Environment Day, which once again reaffirms the global commitment to environmental protection.
Although the 13th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) specifically commits to climate action, the issue of climate change, in general, is interconnected with 14 of the 17 SDGs. In the 21st century, climate change is an unquestionably important global threat to human sustainability. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) reported in the last year that the planet was 1.15 ± 0.13 °C warmer than the pre-industrial era (1850-1900) average, making the last 8 years the warmest on record. The sea level has risen approximately 3.4 ± 0.3 mm per year over the past 30 years of the satellite altimeter record. The glaciers have been losing mass nearly every year since records began. Rising global temperatures have contributed to more frequent and severe extreme weather events around the world, including cold and heat waves, floods, droughts, wildfires and storms. These events have direct and indirect adverse impacts on sustainable development goals in general and population health in particular.
The process of global climate change, largely driven by unsustainable production, consumption and distribution of resources, is altering our planet’s climate patterns. The atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases reflect a balance between emissions from untenable productions and consumptions which are further heavily influenced by the unequal distribution of resources “within” and “between” countries.
Climate change and health implications
Climate change has implications for several cross-cutting spheres of human life including agricultural production, water supply, inequality in opportunity, displacement of people, threat of natural disasters, and so on. Health has a compounding impact from climate change and its multi-layer and multi-level consequences. Globally, 5 million deaths were associated with non-optimal temperatures alone per year, accounting for 9.5% of all deaths. Further, the 2015 global burden of diseases study has indicated that 16% of all deaths globally are attributed to varied pollutions and also an economic loss of $4·6 trillion per year.
Among all sorts of pollution, air pollution is considered one of the largest environmental risk factors causing almost 7 million premature deaths each year. Burning of fossil fuels, burning of solid wastes, deforestation, industrial activities and agricultural activities are leading causes of air pollution. The WHO estimates that 9 out of 10 people worldwide are exposed to air with higher levels of pollutants.
India is not an exception when discussing pollution and environmental change. The country has one of the world’s largest levels of PM2.5 and 21 out of the 30 most polluted cities in terms of PM2.5. The State of Global Air Report 2020, estimated approximately 1.7 million premature deaths due to household and ambient air pollution in the country in 2019. In addition, the economic loss incurred by air pollution in the country for the year 2019 accounted for 1.36% of the nation’s GDP.
The implications of climate change on human health are profound. Direct effects such as heat waves can result in fatalities, as seen in the devastating heat waves in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. Extreme weather events like cyclones, floods, and droughts have claimed thousands of lives and displaced millions, exacerbating the vulnerability of already marginalized populations. Variable precipitation patterns can lead to water scarcity, compromising hygiene and increasing the risk of waterborne diseases. Rising sea levels threaten coastal areas, contributing to flooding, saltwater intrusion, and the displacement of populations. Retreating glaciers in the Himalayas poses risks to freshwater availability, food security, and livelihoods. These are a few of the many health impacts associated with climate change. Climate-induced health costs are huge in India. Mortality attributable to hot and cold ambient temperatures in India alone is 6.3% of all deaths or around 8 lakhs per year.
Climate change and the vulnerable
Climate change is a global crisis that affects everyone, but its consequences are particularly devastating for the poor and vulnerable populations. These marginalised communities bear the brunt of climate change impacts due to their limited resources, socioeconomic disadvantages, and geographical location. The poor often lack access to essential services, including clean water, sanitation, healthcare, and education, which exacerbates their vulnerability to climate-related hazards. The poor and vulnerable are disproportionately affected by extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts, and floods. Their precarious living conditions, often in informal settlements or low-lying coastal areas, make them highly susceptible to displacement, property damage, and loss of livelihoods. Additionally, these communities rely heavily on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, and forestry, which are highly susceptible to changing weather patterns. Crop failures, loss of livestock, and reduced yields lead to food insecurity, malnutrition, and economic instability, trapping them in a vicious cycle of poverty.
A farmer with his flattened wheat crop in Punjab’s Ferozepur district. Photo: Special arrangemen
India, with its vast number of people living below the poverty line and across diverse geographical regions, is particularly vulnerable to the health effects of climate change. The country’s dependence on climate-sensitive sectors, such as agriculture and fisheries, combined with a large rural population, magnifies the risks. Air pollution in the country largely influences agricultural production. Research conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), informs that exposure to air pollution reduces the yield of major food crops in India. The projected rise in temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns, and the melting of Himalayan glaciers all pose significant challenges to public health. It is imperative that India takes proactive measures to mitigate and adapt to these challenges and build a climate change-resilient healthcare system in India.
Way forward for India
The urgent need for climate change resilient health initiatives in India arises from the escalating threats posed by climate change to public health. However, there is little progress towards developing the climate change or disaster-resilient healthcare system in India which was quite evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, historical and political commitments towards research funding and actions for building a sustainable climate-resilient healthcare system in India are not adequate.
A wide array of climate-related challenges impacts disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, exacerbating existing health inequalities. To effectively address these challenges, there is a pressing need to develop and implement climate change resilient health initiatives and technological innovations. Such initiatives should focus on strengthening healthcare infrastructure, improving disease surveillance systems, enhancing early warning systems for extreme weather events, promoting research on climate-health linkages, and building capacity among healthcare professionals to tackle climate-related health risks. By prioritising climate resilience in the health sector, India can mitigate the adverse health impacts of climate change, protect the well-being of its citizens, and build a sustainable and robust healthcare system capable of adapting to the changing climate conditions.
Md Juel Rana is Assistant Professor at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh; Srinivas Goli is Associate Professor and Amrutha G.S. is a Project Officer at the International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai, Maharashtra.
Opinions expressed in the article are personal and, in any form, do not reflect the views of their affiliated institutions.