BSC participates in the new WMO report on the health risks of climate change

02 November 2023

BSC, through its Global Health Resilience team, is the only research centre in Spain to contribute to the World Meteorological Organization's report on climate services, which this year focuses on human health.

Extreme weather events, poor air quality, changes in infectious disease patterns and insecure water and food supplies put the health of much of the world's population at risk

The provision of climate information through climate services is critical to understanding how and when health systems and population health may be affected by the impacts of climate change

"We need accessible tools that facilitate effective communication of complex historical, current and projected trends in climate and health," says Rachel Lowe, leader of the BSC's Global Health Resilience team, who participates in the launch of the WMO report

Rising global temperatures threaten to reverse a decades-long trend of progress towards better human health across the planet. To cope with the new reality of climate change, the health sector needs adapted climate information and services to manage climate-related health risks. This is the conclusion of the report presented today by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on the state of climate services, which this year focuses on human health and which has included the participation of researchers from the Barcelona Supercomputing Center – Centro Nacional de Supercomputación (BSC-CNS).

A climate service is defined as the provision of climate information to a user to help them make appropriate decisions. This information is essential to better understand how and when health systems and population health may be affected by the effects of climate change, which involves extreme weather, poor air quality, changes in infectious disease patterns and insecure water and food supplies.

The WMO report on the state of climate services highlights that while the scientific knowledge and resources to cope with the situation are now available, they are not yet sufficiently accessible or used in the health sector, with particular impact on the world's most vulnerable communities. In fact, less than a quarter of the world's health ministries have a health monitoring system that uses climate information, according to the WMO report presented today by WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

Input from BSC's Global Health Resilience team

The document includes contributions from more than 30 different organisations, among them the outstanding contribution of the Global Health Resilience team of the BSC's Department of Earth Sciences led by ICREA professor Rachel Lowe, one of the leading international research groups in the study of the relationship between climate change and health and the only one in Spain to contribute to the report coordinated by the WMO.

Lowe, who is participating this Thursday in the presentation of the report, has contributed, together with BSC researcher Kim van Daalen, with a case study based on the indicators of The Lancet Countdown in Europe, an initiative led by the BSC to observe the relationship between health and climate change in Europe. Lowe has also been involved in other studies mentioned in the paper, related to climate-related disease risk prediction models in Barbados and a dengue early warning system in Vietnam.

"While awareness of the health implications of climate change is growing, there is a need for accessible tools and ready-to-use information to facilitate effective communication of complex historical, current and projected trends in climate and health. This information can help ensure that mitigation targets are met and inform adaptation strategies to increase society's resilience to climate change in Europe and beyond," said Lowe.

Extreme heat, the main threat

The WMO report identifies the main threats to health from the effects of climate change, such as heat waves, hurricanes, droughts, floods and fires. Of these, the phenomenon with the highest mortality rate is extreme heat, which in Europe alone caused more than 60,000 deaths in 35 different countries during the summer of 2022, according to The Lancet Countdown.

"Virtually the entire planet has experienced heatwaves this year. The onset of El Niño in 2023 will greatly increase the likelihood of further record-breaking temperatures, triggering more extreme heat in many parts of the world and in the ocean, and making the challenge even greater," said the WMO secretary-general, who presented the report from the agency's headquarters in Geneva.

This trend is expected to increase until the end of the century in areas such as southern Europe, Central and South America, Southeast Asia and especially Africa, which could account for more than half of the projected increase in mortality due to climate change by 2050, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), largely because of underdeveloped climate services and early warning systems.

Heat waves also exacerbate air pollution, which is already responsible for some 7 million premature deaths a year, just as they worsen the effects of droughts, putting food security at risk across much of the world's land surface.

Changing climatic conditions are also enhancing the transmission of climate-sensitive infectious diseases transmitted by vectors as well as through food and water. For example, dengue fever is the fastest spreading vector-borne disease in the world, while the length of the malaria transmission season has increased in several parts of the world.

"The climate crisis is a health crisis, causing increasingly severe and unpredictable weather events, fuelling disease outbreaks and contributing to rising rates of non-communicable diseases," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a recorded message.

Climate services success stories

The WMO report also gives cause for hope by listing a number of success stories from all continents of climate service development that have proven to be effective. Among the case studies featured are early warning systems for extreme heat and drought, pollen monitoring methods to help allergy sufferers, and satellite monitoring of climate-sensitive diseases that have been used to solve climate change-related health crises.

"By working together to make high-quality climate services more accessible to the health sector, we can help protect the health and well-being of people facing the dangers of climate change," stressed the WHO Director-General.