Climate change and healthcare

There is growing evidence that climate change could pose increasing risks to health. Our research looks at these potential risks and the impacts they could have on human health.

The scientific evidence points strongly to the Earth having a climate that is changing rapidly - these changes being largely caused by human activity as we go about our everyday lives.

On a local scale, there will be parts of the world which see a net benefit from a warming world, but there are many areas that will see a dramatic deterioration in their environment which will impact in a negative way on people's health.

The potential impact on our health is significant and there are several aspects of this that we could consider:

  • What are the facts - namely how will a changing climate affect the environments we live in?
  • How will these changing environments affect the health of the people who live there?
  • What aspects of this area of science are we sure of, and what are we less sure about?
  • What can we do about it as individuals and at an organisational level?

Public health depends on safe drinking water, sufficient food, secure shelter, and good social conditions. A changing climate is likely to affect all of these conditions. Some of the health effects include:

  • Increasing frequencies of heatwaves - recent analyses show that human-induced climate change significantly increased the likelihood of the European summer heatwave of 2003. 
  • More variable precipitation patterns are likely to compromise the supply of freshwater, increasing risks of water-borne disease.
  • Rising temperatures and variable precipitation are likely to decrease the production of staple foods in many key regions, increasing risk of global shortages and ultimately malnutrition in the poorest countries.
  • Rising sea levels increase the risk of coastal flooding leading to population displacement. More than half of the world's population now lives within 60 km of the sea. Some of the most vulnerable regions are the Nile delta in Egypt, the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta in Bangladesh, and many small islands, such as the Maldives, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu.
  • Changes in climate are likely to lengthen the transmission seasons of important vector-borne diseases, and to alter their geographic range, potentially bringing them to regions which lack either population immunity or a strong public health infrastructure.

World Health Organization

"The impacts of climate on human health will not be evenly distributed around the world. Developing country populations, particularly in Small Island States, arid and high mountain zones, and in densely populated coastal areas, are considered to be particularly vulnerable.

"Fortunately, much of the health risk is avoidable through existing health programmes and interventions. Concerted action to strengthen key features of health systems, and to promote healthy development choices, can enhance public health now as well as reduce vulnerability to future climate change."

What are we doing?

The Met Office is playing a key role on the national and international stage to develop science to understand how weather and climate affect people's health in the short term (2-5 day timescale) out to the year or decadal time scale. The work that we do informs policy makers of the size and urgency of the task ahead in the context of climate change. Importantly it also goes into the development services to combat these effects.

This work is of great complexity and requires that organisations and governments work together for best effect. For this reason, we work with national governments, leading businesses and academic centres as well as other influential groups to help society deal with the challenges ahead.

University of Exeter

Since October 2010, a researcher from the University of Exeter has been working with the Met Office Health Team building a suite of projects to develop research in health, climate and weather.  All of the projects have some involvement from the University of Exeter, especially the European Centre for the Environment and Human Health (ECEHH) in Truro, which is part of the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry. They also involve researchers from other top UK universities as well as various institutes around the world.

Heat and Human Health

One project that is currently been worked on looks at the effect of heat on human health. Following on from a workshop earlier this year, 20 pieces of individual work have been initiated to look at the complex question of bringing human physiology together with meteorology.

All our health and climate research is of great complexity and requires that organisations and governments work together for best effect. For this reason, we work with national governments, leading businesses and a number of academic centres as well as other influential groups to help society deal with the challenges ahead.

For more information please contact the Health team - health@metoffice.gov.uk

Last updated: 21 January 2014

The effects of climate change on health
Met Office climate change expert Felicity Liggins explains the relationship between climate change and our health.

Climate change and health video transcript read the transcript (PDF, 106 kB)