Northern Ireland, Scotland Climate action and sustainable development, Health and social care

Climate change and health inequalities


Improvement Service, Climate Change Project Manager Judi Kilgallon

The Improvement Service, Public Health Scotland and Adaptation Scotland recently published a new briefing on how climate change can affect health and health inequalities in Scotland, both directly and indirectly, through impacts on everything from housing and transport to access to goods and services.

The briefing discusses what can be done to adapt to these impacts and how to take a preventative approach to building climate resilience at a local level in a way that also benefits health. It starts with understanding how the challenges are interconnected, adopting a whole system approach and working together to identify actions that address the underlying causes.

Most importantly for local government, it highlights the important role that councils and elected members have to play in responding to the twin challenges of climate change and health inequalities, and the value of collaborative working – already in evidence in IS projects such as Shaping Places for Wellbeing.

When we think about the risks to health from climate impacts, we usually think about the direct effects we see in the news daily. Extreme flood events and fires can result in death or injury, and biological or chemical contaminants from flood events can cause illness. High temperatures can worsen health problems and contribute to deaths, particularly among older people and those with pre-existing health conditions.

However, climate change also indirectly affects health and well-being through our social, economic, and physical environment. Known as the building blocks of good health, these factors include high-quality housing, transport systems and natural environments, strong social relationships and networks, access to goods and services, and secure, high-quality employment.

Building blocks. Credit@improvementservice

Learning more about health impacts can also help to improve our response to climate change. Using the nine public health principles set out in the briefing, councils and elected members can support the development of policies and local plans that contribute to climate resilience in a way that protects better health, maximises health and wellbeing co-benefits, does not widen or introduce new health inequalities and reduces unintended negative social and health impacts that lead to harm.

Nine public health principles. Credit@ImprovementService
Nine public health principles. Credit@ImprovementService

The briefing is designed to help elected members and council officers increase their understanding of this issue but also to formulate the questions they should be asking when it comes to public health and climate change:

  • Do you know the biggest health inequality in your area?
  • Do you know the communities most vulnerable to climate change?
  • Have you considered the building blocks of good health?
  • What evidence do you have to understand how climate change and climate adaptations are affecting public health?

The Improvement Service works closely with local government and key stakeholders such as Public Health Scotland to tackle climate change and ensure that Scotland’s health inequality gap is narrowing, not widening. These have to be thought of as twin goals which are inextricably linked and which, when delivered correctly, can deliver better outcomes for individuals and communities.

Programmes like Shaping Places for Wellbeing, currently being delivered by the Improvement Service and Public Health Scotland, are already working to tackle the challenges of health inequalities and climate change. The programme aims to improve Scotland’s well-being and reduce inequalities by changing our collective approaches to the places where we live, work and play. Enabling partnership-based, wide-ranging action at a local level, while addressing the health of our planet.

This approach will be needed going forward to ensure that climate change is not viewed as a single issue but is addressed across all portfolio areas.


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