Communicating health evidence of climate change for decision-making

The value of research lies in its credibility and in the ability to communicate it to key decision-makers. This was the main discussion topic at a meeting held at the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health in Bonn on 27-28 May 2014. Over 30 experts and representatives from a number of European countries gathered to examine and communicate the health implications of the latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to environment and health officials.

Examining the health scenarios of climate change

The IPCC report deals extensively with health and provides new insights into observed and projected impacts. It supports the conclusion that both climate-sensitive health risks and the health benefits of cutting greenhouse gas emissions should be central to any decision on climate change.

Our planet is committed over the next few decades to climate change. Rising temperatures have increased the risk of heat-related death and illness and local changes in temperature and rainfall have altered distribution of some water-borne illnesses and disease-vectors. Over the next few decades climate change will mainly exacerbate health problems that already exist, but new conditions may emerge (for example, infections may extend their range into areas that are presently unaffected) or health problems related to insecurity and economic damage.

Timing is crucial

Participants agreed that the time for action is now as the window of opportunity to mitigate these scenarios is narrowing by the day. Delayed action in reducing greenhouse gas emissions will increase costs and its impact. Crucially, many of the causes of climate change such as fossil fuel combustion, poorly-designed cities, and overdependence on motorised transport, are also major drivers of the world’s fastest-growing public health problem – noncommunicable diseases. By designing smart climate mitigation policy, efforts to reduce carbon emissions offer profound co-benefits for health, which in turn result in cost-savings for the health care system and for governments in general.

Communicating the evidence

The scientific findings of the three IPCC working groups formed the basis for a communications discussion. Experts looked into practical approaches to communicate the findings based on evidence, focussing on the expected magnitude of health risks, the solution for improving people’s health now and in the future, and taking into account available resources and stakeholder engagement.

Identification of single overarching communication outcomes (SOCO) guided the discussion as experts were asking themselves what they should do with increasingly solid evidence. They crafted four SOCOs targeted to four audiences:

  • mitigate greenhouse emissions to obtain immediate health gains: aimed at European policy-makers;.
  • make cities sustainable and climate resilient: aimed at local governments;
  • integrate health into negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): aimed at climate change negotiators; and
  • integrate climate change in all health policies: aimed at national and European health policy-makers.

The SOCOs and key messages identified will be developed into a revised summary document and communication strategy to feed back to the European Environment and Health Process, as well as other European and global processes and fora.