ISSUES PAPER: Climate change and health
Climate change is potentially the world’s greatest health threat. A global rise in temperature 2 to 3º
this century will have implications for the health of billions of people in most populations, but it is those
in the least developed countries who are particularly at risk.
Global warming affects health in two ways. Directly, it is responsible for changing patterns of disease
and mortality, subjecting more people to infections and insect-borne diseases such as malaria and
dengue fever. In Australia, for example, dengue fever is reaching further south than ever before,
partly because drought is forcing more people to store water in rain tanks, providing more breeding
grounds for mosquitoes. In addition, changing weather patterns result in more extreme events, like
heat waves, drought and hurricanes, which lead to greater potential loss of life.
But its indirect effects are potentially even more serious. Climate change will impact food supply,
water and sanitation, leading to malnutrition and diarrhoeal disease. It will force the migration of
millions of people, leading to the loss of services and education. Increased poverty brought by climate
change is itself a major risk factor for poor health.
Global warming will result in hundreds of millions of environmental refugees, whose access to
services, health and education will be greatly reduced. There is ample evidence that, in times of
economic crisis, girls and women living in poverty often bear the brunt of compounding vulnerabilities
as they see out alternate sources of livelihood, often in unsafe working or living environments.
The health effects of climate change are predicted to be most severe in the developing world. People
who do not have access to safe drinking water, small scale farmers, women in rural areas, refugees
and the poor who are already struggling for survival will be disproportionately at risk. Of particular
concern are indigenous populations and ethnic minorities, as their subsistence lifestyle is often largely
dependent on nature.
A report published in The Lancet this year estimated the detrimental effects of climate change to
health would be 500 times more serious in Africa and South Asia than the developed world. People in
these regions lack essential information about their vulnerability to this threat, the authors say.
The Stern Review pointed out that climate change would hinder growth and development across the
developing world. In some areas this is already happening, with climate change undermining attempts
to reduce poverty. It is because of climate change’s devastating effect on the world’s most
marginalized groups that it is increasingly being considered as a human rights issue. By failing to
tackle climate change at home and engaging meaningfully in international assistance and co-
operation with low and medium income countries, rich nation states are effectively violating the
human rights of both their own people and those living in poor countries.
Climate change threatens several universally recognised rights, including the rights to life, food,
adequate housing, health, and water. The rights of women, children and minorities are central in the
fight against climate change. Projected population displacement will create additional challenges in
low and middle income countries to ensure sustained access for all to services including education,
health and social support.
The international community’s strategy against climate change involves three imperatives: mitigation
– reducing greenhouse gases; adaptation and disaster relief, and protecting the human rights of those
affected by global warming.
Much work has already been put into the first two. The world is now realising that the third element –
ensuring people’s basic rights to cushion them from the effects of climate change – is equally
By viewing climate change as a human rights issue, rich countries will be encouraged to recognise
the principals of non discrimination and equality. The impacts of climate change on health and
development cannot be met unless we take into account its human dimension, rather than solely its
economic significance. A rights-based approach is the best way to do this.
Climate Wrongs and Human Rights - Putting people at the heart of climate-change policy, Oxfam
Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, page on climate change
Human Development Report 2007/08: Fighting climate change, human solidarity in a divided world
International Council on Human Rights, Climate change and human rights, a rough guide
Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change, The Lancet