Health and Climate Change

Landscape Assessment
A flood-relief responder stands on a damaged bridge.

There are many opportunities to fund research and mitigation and adaptation strategies at the intersection of health and climate change.

The Issue

Climate change affects health when changes to weather patterns bring higher temperatures, extreme precipitation, and drought; increases in air pollution; severe and widespread wildfires; disruption to the food supply chain; and the spread of vector-borne and infectious diseases. In spring 2017, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation commissioned a landscape assessment of funding and research at the nexus of health and climate change.

Key Findings

Researchers interviewed 38 experts in philanthropy, government, the nonprofit sector, academia, and business, and found that:

  • Protecting vulnerable populations in the context of a changing climate will be key. There is opportunity to develop a more comprehensive definition of climate-specific vulnerable populations. Initiatives to mitigate the disproportionate impacts of climate-related health risks on these populations are critical and should not take a “one size fits all” approach.

  • Funding of health and climate change is extremely limited, ad hoc, haphazard, and lacking a coordinated strategy. Notably, however, some health care systems are engaging in the area by decarbonizing their facilities.

  • Basic research is no longer needed to establish the threat of climate change to health. Instead, applied research is needed to inform the implementation of effective interventions at the local level. The southeastern U.S. would be a good starting point.

  • More data is needed to granularly quantify areas where climate change mitigation also yields health benefits or “co-benefits.” For example, information on how interventions that increase walking, cycling, or electric vehicles on the road also reduce greenhouse gas emission, could inform policymaking.   

  • Communications strategies that frame climate change as a human health problem make it a personal, relevant, and more manageable problem. Here stories and pictures, especially about extreme weather events, are more persuasive than numbers and statistics.

About the Study

Scientists at Climate Central, an independent nonpartisan nonprofit research and journalism organization, conducted interviews in person and by video conferencing in April and May 2017. Some 26 organizations were represented by the 38 interviewees, which included eight RWJF staff members.