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Climate change is the next frontier in public health — and our century’s biggest threat to wellness. Human activities are making the atmosphere warmer. This means that extreme weather events are likely to become more frequent, which is bad news for our physical and mental health.

HomeSpecial ReportsClimate changeWhy climate change is the biggest threat to health this century

Why climate change is the biggest threat to health this century

  • The world is in a polycrisis — and climate change will highlight vulnerabilities in health systems and heighten inequality, which is bad news for people’s health.
  • The consequences of climate change span every aspect of people’s lives — how we earn income, produce and consume food and respond to climate change.
  • These things will spill over into healthcare and will make infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV and malaria spread, drive up the incidence of conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, and worsen mental health problems in people who are most vulnerable — and they’re all connected.
  • To weather the storm, we need to help people understand how climate change affects our health and draw on lessons from past research so that both people and health systems can become more resilient.
  • Conversations like Tuesday’s are important to get people talking and sharing ideas so that words can turn into actions — while we still have time. Here’s what the experts said.

Climate change will impact every aspect of our lives, and also every part of our health. But the routes along which this happens are not always clear, and one often affects another. Mia Malan asked a panel of experts — from health researchers to policymakers and activists — about these links and what we can do not only to prepare for the impact of climate change on health but also to become more resilient in our response.

The panellists were:

  • Yogan Pillay, director for HIV and TB delivery, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Bono Nemukula, deputy director — environmental health, national department of health
  • Kingsley Orievulu, social scientist, Africa Health Research Institute
  • Azeeza Rangunwala, Global Green and Healthy Hospitals coordinator, groundWork

    Highlights from the webinar:
  • In a study in KwaZulu-Natal, researchers found that drought made it difficult for people to take care of their immediate needs and make ends meet. For people with HIV, it meant struggling to stay on treatment, which, in turn, can lead to drug resistance and higher HIV infection rates. Hear more from Kingsley Orievulu.
  • Undernutrition is one of the biggest reasons for people becoming more susceptible to tuberculosis (TB). Research shows that climate change is likely to hamper food production, and it will change what we eat and how we grow food. Yogan Pillay shared how climate change will feed into factors that make it easier for TB to spread.
  • The antidote to eco-anxiety and eco-depression is empowering young people with information about what they can do — in their own lives and in their communities — to deal with and adapt to the effects of climate change. Yogan Pillay says helping people to become resilient will help to strengthen their mental health.
  • Health is not just a hospital or a clinic — because people have to be able to access these facilities. So, as much as the buildings need to be made climate resilient, so too do the roads, power lines and water systems that service them. Hear more from Azeeza Rangunwala about what healthy health systems mean.
  • Policies need to be written in a way that the people who they’re meant to serve can understand them. Bono Nemukula talks about the policies the national health department has in place to deal with the impact of climate change, and how they plan to put them into action.

Watch our Bhekisisa Webinar – From HIV to climate change: Our next global health threat

The conversation about why climate change is the biggest public health threat of the century sparked lots of media interest. 

Linda Pretorius is Bhekisisa’s content editor. She has a PhD in biosystems from the University of Pretoria has been working as a science writer, editor and proofreader in the book industry and for academic journals over the past 15 years. At Bhekisisa she helps authors to shape and develop their stories to pack a punch.

Soley Crooks Chissano was Bhekisisa's programme associate from March 2023 to March 2024.