As CEOs and world leaders gather for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, they might be surprised to see less snow out of the window than usual on the country’s luminous peaks.
Record-breaking temperatures in the Alps are just one sign of the effect climate change is having on planet Earth. Longer rainy seasons and a warmer climate are leading to more dengue fever, the worsening famine in the Sahel caused in part by erratic rainfall driven by climate change, and temperatures in Europe over the summer — and winter — that would have felt impossible in previous decades.
The summit in Davos aims to convene decision-makers to come up with solutions to the key issues of the day and map the world’s future. Climate change will be on the agenda, but there’s a piece of the climate puzzle missing: health.
It doesn’t make sense to talk about climate change without talking about health. Poor health is a key component of vulnerability and many of the world’s poorest and most politically fragile nations lie at the center of a climate-health-security crossroads.
Climate change is already fueling economic stagnation, food insecurity, water scarcity, and related health crises that are making living conditions in some of these nations untenable. And this will only get worse.
Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is facing a more vulnerable toll of natural disaster than the rest of the world. The World Bank estimates 86 million climate change migrants by 2050 with an extra 250,000 deaths globally each year from the warming planet.
To stop this flood of suffering, global leaders must take urgent and decisive action now through investing in the climate-additive critical drivers of vulnerability and subsequent migration: poor health and lack of human security.
Strong health systems are central to preparedness, adaptation, and resilience against climate change. Accelerating adaptation would lead to more robust health systems that can help minimize the effects of future infectious disease outbreaks.
Yet the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the chronic underinvestment in health and the dizzying — and unacceptable — inequalities that still exist, such as nations in Africa being relegated to the back of the vaccine queue.
The effects of climate change on health are already being seen in increasing outbreaks of infectious disease, polio resurfacing where it had previously been eliminated, one of the worst recent outbreaks of cholera in Malawi, the resurgence of Ebola in Uganda, and more. These outbreaks will only increase as the world heats up.
According to the United Nations, not taking action means undoing the last 50 years of progress in economic development, global health, and poverty reduction. Almost 100 million people are driven into extreme poverty each year because of out-of-pocket health expenses and, with increasing infectious disease outbreaks, climate change will make this worse.
Investing in resilient health systems with a well-trained, well-resourced health workforce at its core will help countries in need better manage the effects of climate change. These investments lead not only to better health but also to job creation, economic growth, and social inclusion.
Successfully addressing avoidable health conditions would lead to an estimated $4.4 trillion boost in gross domestic product across all lower-income countries by 2040. That equates to an economic return of between $2 and $4 for every $1 invested in health.
I am in Davos this week, urging leaders and CEOs to prioritize health. Not only to build adaptation and resilience against climate change, but to support healthier and more productive citizens in pursuit of the shared goal of greater prosperity for all.
Vanessa Kerry is a critical care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, CEO of Seed Global Health, a nonprofit that trains health workers in countries with critical shortages, and director of the Program for Global Public Policy at Harvard Medical School.
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