Measuring Climate Impacts on Health

Tree with Right hand side full of leaves on health patch of grass and the other half is dead with no leaves on a dried up patch of mud

Climate related emergencies have made frequent headlines over the last few years, from record heatwaves and wildfires, to increased flood risk – but how can we measure how our climate, and the changes we are seeing, are affecting us?

Without this evidence, we cannot know the true health burden of climate change. This is where the ONS Climate & Health Project fits in – a four-year project, funded by Wellcome, which we began in February 2022. As we pass the project mid-way point, Gillian Flower reflects on the achievements so far, and the wider implications of this important work.

Our aim

Globally there is an array of climate initiatives, but with no recognised framework to directly measure the impacts of climate on health, how much do we really understand about how the two are linked?

The aim of the project is to develop a set of methods and metrics to quantify the impacts of climate change on health. We are seeking to have these endorsed by the United Nations Statistical Commission (UNSC) and to integrate the framework with the Global Set of Climate Change Statistics and Indicators. This will provide a globally recognised measure for how our health is affected by climate change, and will support policy making at national, regional and even local levels.

These methods have potential to unlock a wealth of new insight. Countries across the world will be able to use the same methods, adapt them to their circumstances, and produce comparable measures of the health burden they face.

For example, areas will be able understand how many people died as a result of extreme heat or cold, or the impacts on mental and physical health following events such as flooding or wildfires. Not only will this mean we can better understand climate impacts in a particular geography or community, we will also be able to identify vulnerable groups in each area, helping leaders to plan health services and interventions.

A global team 

Climate is a global concern, and we are proud to be working with several international partners on this project, drawing on expertise from around the world. We are pleased to be officially partnered with the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Rwanda and the Regional Institute of Population Studies (RIPS) at the University of Ghana. Our colleagues at AIMS and RIPS are working alongside us to develop and test these climate metrics.

We are also benefitting from a wealth of knowledge from leading climate experts at the Lancet Countdown, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and the Cochrane Climate-Health Working Group.

Prof. Wilfred Ndifon (AIMS Rwanda) and Dr Aaron Kobina Christian (RIPS, University of Ghana) speak about what the project means to them and their communities.

Prof. Wilfred Ndifon (AIMS Rwanda):

“Over recent decades, Rwanda has experienced rising temperatures, shorter and more intense rainy seasons, and an increase in extreme weather events with about 90 thousand people affected every year by floods, landslides, droughts and earthquakes between 2016 and 2020. Infectious disease conditions are also impacted with an estimated 5,280 people killed by influenza and pneumonia, in 2020 alone.

To address these problems, we need to fill an evidence gap. This project addresses this gap to enable systematic assessment of the impact of climate change to drive urgent action.”

Dr Aaron Kobina Christian (University of Ghana):

“Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing the impact of climate change. Specifically in Ghana, we have seen sensitivity to disease conditions affecting malaria, Cerebrospinal Meningitis (CSM), foodborne diseases, malnutrition and water scarcity.

We need to explore the various pathways from climate change to healthcare systems, vulnerability and adaptation assessment. Evidence is needed to support better climate-sensitive interventions, and to understand how extreme weather patterns are monitored and managed within the health system. This will help identify community coping strategies and build resilience.”

Successes so far

Drawing on this diverse network, we have already developed some methods as well as a prototype of our online platform that will be hosted by the UN Global Platform.

We were pleased to present our work at the 55th United Nations Statistical Commission Virtual Side Event. Myer Glickman, Megan Green and Vijendra Ingole discussed our framework and an early prototype of our online platform.

We were also privileged to present at the World Health Organisation (WHO) COP28 at the Climate Data, Science and Services for Better Health event.

In September 2023 we published early results of our methods in our Climate-related mortality release. This analysed temperature related mortality on the hottest and coldest days in England.

If you’d like to find out more about the project, and stay informed about our work, please get in touch with us at or refer to our project webpage.

Gillian Flower, Climate & Health Statistician, ONS