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January 18, 2024

Health hazards spur new pledges on climate action

As the planet warms, health impacts will accelerate—and businesses will need to adapt or lose productivity.

In the news

Here’s another reason to fight climate change: Mosquitos are loving it. They’re spreading their awful little wings and moving to regions that were previously too cold to support them.

And not just any mosquitos. Aedes aegypti, carriers of viruses including those that cause yellow fever, dengue, chikungunya and Zika virus infection, are adapting. For instance, while dengue has long been considered a tropical disease, as the earth warms it has spread to southern Europe. Another type of mosquito linked to dengue, the Asian tiger mosquito, has actually been captured in Kent, England.

Dengue is seldom fatal, but its spread should be considered a coal-mine canary, if mixed winged metaphors are permissible. As the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it, “Some existing health threats will intensify and new health threats will emerge” due to climate change. Those threats include respiratory and heart diseases, water- and food-related illnesses, injuries—even mental health issues known to follow extreme weather events.

At the recent COP 28 conference in Dubai, more than 120 countries backed a declaration “to place health at the heart of climate action and accelerate the development of climate-resilient, sustainable and equitable health systems.” Physicians and other experts are also sounding the alarm. In South Asia alone, says Harvard University’s Satchit Balsari, an emergency room doctor and co-director of CrisisReady, extreme heat is already killing tens of thousands of people each year. Rickshaw pullers are said to be the first victims— “The portable water gets so hot they can’t drink it,” Balsari says.

This underscores a significant point: The most vulnerable are hit hardest by climate change-related health issues, including children, elders, low-income communities and some communities of color.

The Cognizant take

The peril of mosquito-borne disease hits close to home for Aya Kiy-Morrocco, Cognizant’s Head of ESG Governance. She spent much of her childhood in the Philippines, where dengue afflicted many friends. Her fellow students would “just disappear for a year,” she recalls, or undergo lengthy hospital stays. “It was a fact of life,” she says. “You were always on high alert—and that was before climate change made things worse.”

Urban areas and their residents are particularly vulnerable to climate change—while also contributing to it. However, Kiy-Morrocco notes, “Cities are also critical in providing solutions. Many are embedding sustainable development in their planning. They’re including decarbonization strategies that incorporate renewable energy, green infrastructure and mapping to increase resilience.”

In addition to the many health issues catalogued above, Kiy-Morrocco points out that climate change is the throughline connecting many of today’s most serious societal problems: the tendency of underserved communities to suffer most, unsustainable migration of populations and more. “Connecting the dots between climate change and threats to water security, public health and social equality is crucial to effectively address these issues,” she says.

Kiy-Morrocco notes that as health-related problems hit more people, businesses will be forced to adapt, simply to ensure a reliable supply of workers—a factor that is growing in importance as the population ages and birth rates slow. “Businesses tune in to this issue when you put it in terms of lost productivity,” she says. “That’s key, because we don’t have thousands of years to adapt; we need to act now.”

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