Climate change has an impact on the environment, the economy, and society at large, and as such poses a considerable threat to public health throughout the world. At the Swiss Public Health Conference 2015, which took place in Geneva on 17 and 18 September 2015, conference speakers highlighted the links between climate change and health, showing that an active climate policy and prevention strategies are not only necessary for Switzerland as a whole, but also have a positive impact on health at a local level.
The conference benefited from its proximity to the international organisations located in Geneva. Maria Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at the World Health Organization (Geneva), and Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (Geneva), stressed the importance of linking health and climate change, emphasizing the relevance of the Conference itself.
The climate will continue to change in the long-term. Climate models suggest that we should expect increases in temperatures of up to 4.8°C by the end of the 21st century – depending on the scenario and the kind of measures implemented in terms of climate policy.
Extreme weather events such as heat waves pose a serious threat to health. Heat exhaustion reduces physical and mental capacities, and therefore also has an impact on the economy. Heat waves, moreover, cause premature death as the result of heat stroke, particularly in older people. Mental illnesses also intensify during heat waves. The combination of high daytime temperatures, the absence of a significant drop in temperatures at night, and high humidity may be a decisive contributing factor here.
The incidence of infectious diseases is also changing. As a result of climate change, carriers of different pathogens are finding favourable breeding conditions in larger parts of Switzerland.
The Swiss Public Health Conference 2015 did not only highlight the effects of climate change on health, but also discussed the indirect health benefits that climate protection measures can have for public health in Switzerland. Promoting active mobility by way of climate-friendly transport strategies contributes to a reduction in CO2emissions, while at the same time offering benefits ranging from the health-boosting effects of physical activity to a safer transport environment, resulting in a healthier urban climate for all. On the other hand, climate change can be influenced by diet, as for instance the consumption of animal food products leads to an increased production of greenhouse gases.
In conclusion, public health professionals have the responsibility to be at the forefront in shaping strategies tailored to specific socio–ecological settings, in order to reduce the impact and vulnerability of climate change, and increase resilience. Therefore, we call for a strong representation and leadership of public health professionals at the upcoming UNFCCC in Paris to ensure that the message is reinforced: health is also at stake.
Written by the Swiss Society for Public Health