The Impacts of Climate on Health: Why Business Should Care and How to Act

September 12, 2018
  • Cecile Oger portrait

    Cecile Oger

    Managing Director, People and Culture, BSR

  • Joanna Lovatt

    Former Manager, BSR

  • Léa Farnier

    Former Manager, BSR

Every year since 2011, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report has identified climate-related risks as a top threat to business. In 2018, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation was ranked within the top 10 global risks, alongside extreme weather events and natural disasters. Climate-related risks are wide-ranging, persist throughout value chains, and can be expected to pose severe financial threats to companies worldwide.

At the same time, climate change affects each and every human around the globe, with profound and potentially lasting implications that could undermine decades of progress in public health. As climate change intensifies, so do its impacts on human health. These range from direct impacts from increases in the frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme heat and extreme weather events to impacts from changes in the distribution and burden of both vector-borne diseases, like malaria and dengue, and water-borne infectious diseases. Other implications include human undernutrition from crop failure, population displacement from sea-level rise, occupational health risks, and increases in noncommunicable diseases, like depression connected to displacement and disasters.

Furthermore, the health impacts of climate change are expected to be distributed unevenly across the globe and make preexisting health inequality worse.

After decades of progress on global health, climate change is posing a new threat—one that could be devastating for humanity.

Why should business care? These changes have direct implications for economic growth, with huge social and financial costs for civil society, government, the general public, and business. For companies, these risks can affect strategy, finance, operations, human resources, and compliance. While business has been addressing climate for years now, much of its work has focused on climate change mitigation. Today, business has an imperative to also support society in adapting to the health impacts associated with a changing climate, which is why we are excited to publish Climate and Health: The Business Case for Action, the latest in our climate nexus report series exploring the connection between climate resilience and sustainability issues.

While the healthcare sector has the single most critical role to play in addressing this intersection, all sectors should care about this issue. Here are three reasons why and suggestions for what business can do:

Reason 1: The health impacts of climate change affect companies in every sector, all over the world. For instance, pollution and other effects of climate change will contribute to worsening health outcomes and have a detrimental effect on workforce health and productivity.

What business can do

  • Assess and understand your company’s footprint and the extent to which it can help mitigate and address the growing health risks associated with climate change through its business, products, and services.
  • Enable greater societal resilience by increasing awareness of climate-related diseases and health impacts within the workforce and the broader ecosystem.

Reason 2: Companies operating at the intersection of health and climate have the opportunity to contribute to solutions. These include financial institutions and service providers, food, beverage, and agriculture (FBA) companies, and information and communications technology (ICT) companies.

What business can do

  • Create mechanisms to respond to climate-related events more effectively, amplify positive impact on health, and enable resilience. For instance, the food industry can ensure proper food supply, the financial services sector can develop new products and services to help individuals manage the health-related effects of climate, and artificial intelligence and big data companies can develop and commercialize technologies and solutions to understand, map, and anticipate the impacts of climate change on health.
  • Collaborate across industries to build effective solutions and scale impact. The ICT sector can be a source of innovation and a partner for other industries to create new models and solutions that address the rising threats posed by climate to public health.
  • Collaborate and create industrywide information, positions, and potentially voluntary standards to define what climate and health mean at a sector level. In particular, the healthcare (see below), FBA, financial services, and ICT sectors can recognize their roles and responsibilities and bring more resilience to reach greater impact.

Reason 3: Healthcare companies have a critical role to play. For this sector, the notion of resilience is central, as these companies must stay in business and ensure continuity to be able to supply drugs and health solutions to patients.

What business can do

  • Adapt quality-assurance systems, risk-management structures, and supply chain management practices to address climate-related risks and opportunities. For pharmaceutical companies, this should start with mapping the portfolio and identifying the products and services that are most likely to be affected by a changing climate.
  • Invest in R&D to develop new drugs and/or delivery models that provide solutions to climate-related diseases. This can build climate and health resilience in tandem.

After decades of progress on global health, climate change is posing a new threat—one that could be devastating for humanity. The negative impacts of climate change on health are already palpable, and they are likely to increase drastically. Business has a clear role to play: Not only can companies mitigate climate change to prevent negative health impacts, they can leverage their assets, products, services, and innovation to provide solutions that reduce climate-related burdens on health.

There is room for companies across the ecosystem to build climate resilience and benefit health, and BSR encourages business to seize these opportunities.

BSR’s climate and health nexus report is the second in our series, which launched this week with our climate and supply chain report. Stay tuned for more on the connections between climate resilience and inclusive economy, women’s empowerment, human rights, and a just transition to the low-carbon economy in the months to come.  

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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