Climate change threatens to have huge impacts on human health and wellbeing. At the same time, the measures local authorities are putting in place through their climate action plans have great potential to bring positive impacts to health and well-being.
As we clean up the air we’ll see less respiratory disease; fewer toxins will mean lower cancer rates; better insulated houses will result in less damp in our homes; and better access to nature will bring benefits to mental health.
Yet it’s not a clearcut case of climate action bringing benefits to all. Councils who suffered more from austerity cuts may be less able to implement the changes needed to face the climate emergency, and as we’re already well aware, we’re not starting on a level playing field: levels of deprivation and life expectancy vary across the country.
We’ve been hearing from Heather Brown, Professor of Health Inequalities at Lancaster University, on how data from our Climate programme has been feeding into a current research project that interrogates all of these points and more, with the help of the Climate Action Plan Explorer and the Council Climate Scorecards site.
Funded by the National Institute of Health and Care, the research will:
- identify the actions and policies which local authorities can take to limit climate change; and
- identify actions and adaptations which can mitigate the health (both physical and mental) and health inequality impacts of climate change.
Climate change and human health are interlinked
The effects that climate change may inflict upon human health and wellbeing are huge and multifarious: from the physical health risks of extremes in temperature; shortages in food and medical supplies; water shortages and contaminated water supplies; to the mental health impacts that include anxiety, grief and loss.
It’s well recognised that these effects will, without intervention, be distributed across our population unfairly, with those already in the most deprived regions likely to be hit hardest and soonest.
Well-implemented and properly funded climate action provides an opportunity for turning these issues into positives for public health. In many cases, interventions fall within the provision of local authorities, and the action they take around climate change will have beneficial effects on health, whether intended or not.
As an example, a switch to more people using sustainable transport modes such as cycling and walking will not only cut carbon emissions, but will have both physical and mental health benefits for the population.
Informed by climate action plan data
Professor Brown explains that the first task in the project is to see what research is already out there on the health impacts of climate change: “We will be undertaking a systematic review of the existing literature to synthesise the findings on the impacts of climate change on individuals, communities and the health system’s lived experiences in relation to physical and mental health and health inequalities in a UK context.”
Part of this will involve using our CAPE database to identify local authorities to speak to. Professor Brown says:
“Based on what we find, we want to talk to people working in local authorities, and identify the perceived barriers and facilitators towards collaborating or co-constructing action plans with local communities, in relation to mitigating physical and mental health impacts and health inequalities.
“We also want to identify how local authority leads are using evidence to support the development of their climate action plans. And finally we’ll explore factors which may impact the implementation of the climate action plans and identify areas which could support them.”
At this point, data from our and Climate Emergency UK’s Council Climate Plan Scorecards site will be brought into play, interestingly with other datasets as well:
“We’ll use the Scorecards site to explore how the ratings of climate plans correlate with funding cuts associated with austerity at the local authority level; as well as population health (life expectancy), and area level deprivation.
“Then, given our findings, we will speak with people working in local authorities to understand what factors related to health were seen as priorities or not when developing climate plans.”
An increase in our understanding
This research will go back to the National Institute of Health and Care to inform their future funding; it will also feed into academic publications, and on a practical level, it should help local authorities with their decision making.
We were really glad to know that our services are playing a part in research that will increase our understanding of these issues. If this case study has suggested synergies with your own work, Professor Brown says that her team is happy to consider potential collaborations or further ideas for future research. Her contact details can be found here.
Image: Fritz Bielmeier
In May 2019 Pressure Vessels, a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), sought to understand increasing levels of stress on the mental health of academic staff.
Dr Liz Morrish, a Visiting Fellow at York St John University, and Professor Nicky Priaulx, a Professor of Law at Cardiff University used Freedom of Information to understand the changing state of staff bodies’ mental health, analysing the demand for counselling and occupational health services within HE.
The first Pressure Vessels report focused primarily on academic staff, while this follow-up broadens the brief to incorporate professional services staff.
“Professional services staff are often marginalised in discussions about the higher education workforce, despite the significant roles they play. They are also more likely to be vulnerable to restructuring and redundancy,” say the study’s authors.
Of course, like every other sector in society, Higher Education has experienced a severe change in working conditions due to the global pandemic. But as Dr Morrish points out, “higher education staff and managers would be unwise to disregard the additional pressures this will bring. Like the virus, workplace stress is here to stay and must be addressed.”
The data in Pressure Vessels II was obtained by requests for information made to 17 universities, on staff numbers accessing counselling and referrals to occupational health for the 2016/17 and 2017/18 academic years.
The first report inspired Sheffield lecturer Tom Stafford to plot the figures onto graphs for each institution — he also offered to make graphs for any more data that could be obtained from other HEIs.
We are pleased to see WhatDoTheyKnow being used as part of a campaign to understand conditions and press for improvements. It’s just one more example of how our right to information can be used for the greater good. Read Pressure Vessels II here.
Image: Nik Shuliahin