As the world faces two rapidly escalating and existential crises — the impacts of climate change and global pandemics — we cannot afford to see these threats as unrelated.
The health impact of climate change is immense, with an estimated 12.6 million deaths annually from environmental causes such as air pollution, unsafe drinking water, zoonotic diseases, and weather-related disasters. Clinically, climate effects are linked to increases in pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, mental health burdens, and trauma. This number is expected to grow, with an additional 250,000 annual deaths forecasted.
Alongside increasing mortality from extreme weather, climate change will also affect disease pandemics, with new scenarios predicting increased frequency and severity of infectious outbreaks as environmental conditions for insect- and water-borne disease become more prevalent.
Though globally reaching, both climate change and disease disproportionately impact people in low- and middle-income countries, in large part because of global resource disparities. According to the World Bank, COVID-19 and climate change will push almost 150 million more people into poverty, and their intermingled impacts will stymie social and economic recovery.
The world can begin to mitigate these negative outcomes though.
Strong health systems, founded on a robust and well-trained workforce, can undergird both climate resilience and pandemic preparedness. Unfortunately, the global community has chronically neglected one of the most critical foundations of health systems: the trained health workforce.
Before COVID, there was a global shortage of health workers. According to the World Health Organization, there will be a shortfall of more than 18 million health workers by 2030. Recent estimates from the International Council of Nurses forecast a global gap of 50 percent of the nursing workforce, even as need continues to build. The world’s insufficient number of trained health workers hobbles efforts to respond to either crisis.
Climate change’s increasing burdens will compound these shortfalls and exacerbate their deleterious effects. Already, 83 countries have critical shortages of health workers; many of those countries will experience the most severe impacts of climate change. No studies have yet quantified the increasing numbers of health workers needed to adapt to climate disruptions; however, the increase in health burdens, coupled with a vulnerable and shrinking workforce from COVID-19, will worsen imbalances and cost lives
To adapt to the future wrought by climate change and devastating disease outbreaks, the global community must concentrate on health workers as the key investment for climate adaptation — and in our shared future.
Fortunately, at many levels, this is an investment that pays for itself. The return on investment for health is estimated to be 9:1, with each added year of life expectancy raising a country’s per capita GDP by 4 percent. Research also shows that investing an additional 2 percent of GDP into the social sectors raises overall employment rates by as much as 6 percent. Additionally, supporting safe and secure employment in the health sector reduces gender disparities, as women absorb up to 70 percent of jobs created while building social inclusion and equity more broadly.
The question is not whether investments in the health workforce are effective, but rather how these critical investments can be accelerated. Any ambitious, multilateral response to climate adaptation must include the health workers critical to safeguarding our collective well-being. New quantifiable targets for health workers need to be established at the country level, timelines for investment need to be lengthened to train and absorb health workers, and political mechanisms for accountability must be strengthened. It is up to the international community to mobilize the long-term financing required to fill these gaps — and that, too, requires aggressive action from global stakeholders.
As we’ve seen at COP26, the world must move from commitments to action. Every predicted climate scenario makes clear that worsening environmental effects and resulting ill health are assured. Globally, we have the needed resources — the scientific knowledge, the technology, and the financial ability. But we have lacked the political will to address longstanding capacity gaps.
We have a historic opportunity to meet this moment and heed the call to truly protect the health of all humans and the planet. COP26 is building momentum to secure financing and emission reduction commitments from nations. However, as the negotiations unfold, we remain amid a global pandemic. We must also recognize the link between planetary health and human health. At the center of protecting these are adaptive health systems with a robust workforce to respond as their cornerstone.
Let’s not waste our moment.
Dr. Vanessa Kerry is CEO of Seed Global Health. Dr. Pooja Yerramilli is a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.