UW News

February 28, 2022

UW authors in IPCC report emphasize threats to human health and well-being

UW News

The latest IPCC report makes clear that climate change is already affecting human health and without reductions in green house gases and stronger adaptation efforts conditions will get much, much worse. Markus Spiske/Pexels

Two University of Washington experts in climate change and health are lead authors of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The new report titled Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptations and Vulnerability, published Monday morning, details in over three thousand pages a “dire warning” about the consequences of inaction on reducing the emissions that are causing our planet to warm and on implementing interventions to prepare for and effectively manage the dangerous impacts of climate change already occurring.

“This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction,” said Hoesung Lee, chair of the IPCC, in a news release. “It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet. Our actions today will shape how people adapt and nature responds to increasing climate risks.”

More UW resources on climate change

Climate Impacts Group is widely recognized for scientific discovery, as an experienced creator of impartial and actionable science on identifying and managing climate risks.

Center for Health and the Global Environment puts health considerations at the forefront of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to prepare for and respond to climate change impacts.

EarthLab pushes boundaries to develop innovative, just and equitable solutions to environmental challenges.

Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center‘s mission is to deliver science to help fish, wildlife, water, land and people adapt to a changing climate.

Program on Climate Change aims to advance our understanding of climate science in order to help society address the challenges of climate change.

UW’s Kristie Ebi, professor of global health and environmental and occupational health sciences in the School of Public Health, and Dr. Jeremy Hess, professor of emergency medicine at UW School of Medicine and of environmental and occupational health sciences and of global health in the School of Public Health, are lead authors on Chapter 7: Health, Wellbeing, and the Changing Structure of Communities. Ebi is also a contributing author on the IPCC’s Summary for Policymakers.

Below, the UW professors discuss these threats and the critical necessity of addressing them.


Professor Ebi’s comments:

portrait of Kristie Ebi

Kristie Ebi

People are suffering and dying right now from climate change, with the risks projected to increase without urgent and immediate investments in health systems to protect and promote population health. The people and nature we care about in our lives are being affected, with more severe impacts occurring sooner than projected just a few years ago.

The magnitude and pattern of future climate change impacts will depend on choices made in other sectors, such as urbanization plans, efforts to manage growing wildfire risks, and modifications to water systems to account for changing rainfall patterns, and on significant and urgent investments in our health systems.

There’s a long list of effective adaption options that can increase the resilience of our health systems and our health care infrastructure, as well as strengthen the capacity of communities to be better prepared to manage changing weather patterns. The major constraint for health is the insignificant investment in this area; catch-up investments are needed that at least keep pace with climate change.

Nearly all mitigation options have benefits for health. Benefits for our health arise from reducing exposure to harmful air pollutants from emissions from point sources like coal-fired power plants, reducing transportation that relies on internal combustion engines and increasing walking and biking, and changing dietary patterns to eat healthier diets.

The economic value of avoided hospitalizations and avoided premature deaths is of the same order of magnitude if not larger than the cost of implementing these mitigation policies. These policies will benefit the health of our families, friends and colleagues, with lower healthcare costs.

We can’t stop the next heat wave, but people don’t need to die. Not facing up to the risks just puts us in a much worse situation.

The future is in our hands. We may not be able to prevent flooding events or heat waves, but we can be prepared. The choices we make going forward will determine all of our futures.


Dr. Hess’ comments:

Jeremy Hess

Jeremy Hess

The chapter on health, well-being and the changing structure of communities is unprecedented in the breadth and depth of its assessment. And its findings are clear: Climate change is already posing significant and widespread burdens on health, through warming temperatures, extreme heat events, changing precipitation patterns and relative humidity, more frequent and severe storms, and wildfires.

More than half of the disease burden in the world is climate sensitive, and a wide range of diseases, from vector-borne and zoonotic infections, water- and food-borne diseases, injuries and a host of chronic noncommunicable diseases, are all affected.

The report highlights the clear risks to mental health, as well.

Estimates of future risks to health depend heavily on future greenhouse gas emissions, trends in socioeconomic development, rates of population increase, and patterns of aging and urbanization. Under high emissions scenarios, risks associated with heat, undernutrition, diarrheal diseases, and select vector-borne diseases will increase.

The report clearly highlights an overarching need for coordinated climate change adaptation across all sectors, including health, with emphasis on addressing social inequities and other underlying factors that drive vulnerability to climate change impacts.

In the health sector, this means investing in the climate resilience of health systems, increasing universal access to basic health care, developing heat action plans and other early warning systems, supporting efforts to reduce heat risk on the population level, enhancing surveillance for climate-sensitive conditions, controlling disease vectors and developing vaccines for vector-borne diseases, and reducing emissions from health care delivery.

Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions yield substantial health dividends that, in most cases, pay for the mitigation efforts themselves.


Ebi is the founding director and Hess is the director of the UW’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. Contributing UW authors for Chapter 7 of the IPCC report are Jennifer Otten, associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, and Yona Sipos, assistant teaching professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, in the UW School of Public Health. Also, Karen Levy, associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences in the UW School of Public Health, was a contributing author to Chapter 16 of the full report.