England & Wales Climate action and sustainable development, Democracy, devolution and governance

Climate change’s untold health story

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In this article, Oxfordshire County Council’s Director of Public Health, Ansaf Azhar, discusses the focus of his annual report – the impact of climate change on health.

Health is the untold story when we talk about our changing climate.

It took 28 years before the UN’s annual climate convention, the Conference of Parties (commonly known as COP), made its first ever health declaration in 2023. This is surprising given the negative impacts of climate change on health, wellbeing and inequality, and the clear opportunities for better health through climate action.

Climate action informs everyone of our current public health priorities at Oxfordshire County Council. This will enable us to deliver better health for local people faster and more fairly.

That is why this year, my Director of Public Health annual report presents the local impacts of climate change on health and provides a roadmap for how local politicians and decision-makers can act to improve health, look after our environment, and, at the same time, reduce emissions both in Oxfordshire, and nationally.

My report does not make a political case for change. It lets the evidence speak for itself. Problematic weather events are becoming more frequent: since 2007 there have been at least 18 severe flood events, eight cold snaps, four major heatwaves and three periods of drought in the county.

Recent flooding in Oxfordshire brought this into the spotlight. The loss of livelihood and the impact on our mental health and wellbeing was unprecedented. These events are going to be more common going forward.

In 2022, there were 65 excess deaths during periods of higher temperature across Oxfordshire and in 2019 an estimated 2,300 years of healthy life were lost due to air pollution in Oxford.

Across England, total costs of heat-related deaths from climate change and related socioeconomic change has been estimated at £6.8bn per year in the 2020’s, rising to £14.7bn per year in the 2050’s. In Oxfordshire, at least 51 care homes, 40 healthcare and GP facilities are also estimated to be at risk.

During the September 2023 heatwave alone, total ambulance demand across Oxfordshire increased by over eight per cent and patient acuity increased with higher numbers of category one (life threatening) and two (emergency) calls alongside a relative reduction in category three (urgent) calls.

But acting on climate change has the potential for many immediate positive health benefits. This means better health for everyone, from newborn babies to working-age adults to older people.

The impact of climate change is already felt most by our most disadvantaged communities, and so it is especially important that any actions we do take include and account for those most at risk.

Everyone and every organisation has an important role to play. But the responsibility to make a change cannot and should not be shouldered by individuals alone. We need real structural changes, and system wide actions to mitigate and adapt to our changing climate and to improve health.

There are a number of things local authorities can do to tackle climate change for the sake of the health of residents: improving the quality of our housing stock to make it more sustainable and energy efficient; better, more reliable transport networks that enable people to travel actively and keep fit; green social prescribing that reduces barriers to accessing and engaging with green space – particularly critical here for people living in the most deprived areas of Oxfordshire.

Oxfordshire County Council, system partners and community action groups are already working hard to address our changing climate – with immediate and longer-term positive benefits for health and wellbeing, but there is still plenty more that we can all do.

In Oxfordshire, we are calling for every climate action, policy and strategy to identify and maximise the opportunity to improve our health and wellbeing.

And by the same token, every health action, policy and strategy should mitigate and prevent the negative health impacts of our changing climate.

By framing the climate change debate in this way from a health co-benefits perspective, we are more likely to attract a significant new cohort of the population to change their behaviour due to immediate health benefits to the individual rather than the environmental benefits alone.

Local authorities and health professionals must work together to support urgent climate action for the sake of our health of our local populations. We need to urge others to do the same by changing their narrative for climate action so that the benefits to our health are front and centre.



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