15 policy recommendations for the climate-health nexus

The topic of health, both mental and physical, is taking an increasing amount of space in climate change discussions and negotiations. According to the World Health Organization, climate-related health damages are estimated to cost up to USD 4 billion by 2030, with outsize impacts on developing nations.

To this end, the recent 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) saw the launch of the climate conference’s first-ever Health Day, with various events that dove into the myriad health impacts of climate change, including the launch of three policy briefs comprising the Climate change and mental health series: Co-creating a resilient future. Produced by four researchers from the United Nations University (UNU) Climate Resilience Initiative, including UNU-MERIT’s Sanae Okamoto, the trio of briefs give backgrounders on three main pillars of the climate-health intersection followed by key recommendations for policymakers, listed below.

Policy Brief 1: Multiple and disaggregated impacts

1. Tailor interventions to the specific needs of diverse populations
Perceptions among populations about mental health vary geographically and significantly, so it is vital to tailor interventions to address the specific needs and cultural sensitivities of diverse populations.

2. Prioritise policies informed by research and data
Policies informed by research that fill data gaps and promote standardised, robust measures should be developed and prioritised. This could help ensure a consistent standard of practice in assessing mental health outcomes of specific climate events and disasters.

3. Integrate mental healthcare within existing health systems
To effectively address the mental health impacts of climate change, policymakers must support the integration of mental health considerations into existing health systems as well as climate adaptation and resilience planning.

4. Recognise entry points for mental healthcare within UNFCCC workstreams
Negative impacts on mental health due to climate change can be reduced through a more prominent focus on measures through mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage. Alongside minimising climate change emissions, adapting to its impacts wherever possible will remain imperative. Where this is not possible, it is vital to better understand the losses and damages climate can bring to mental health.

Policy Brief 2: Risk factors, vulnerabilities and inequalities

1. Research and acknowledge vulnerabilities and inequalities
Gender, age, socio-economic status, displacement, Indigenous status and other factors intensify the impacts of climate risks on mental health. Addressing the needs of affected populations remains key for developing integrated climate planning and policy interventions.

2. Empower and involve all stakeholders
Include the most vulnerable in the design and implementation of community-led evidence-based solutions at local, national and international levels to address the needs of diverse populations.

3. Develop participatory solutions
Creating a safe environment and building women’s capacity to adapt to more climate-resilient lines of income, such as through robust networks of support, development of referral systems and victim-support facilities, will enhance mental health support by mitigating the social and economic impacts of climate change.

4. Consider the complete development cycle of a child
The full scope of the period from infancy to adulthood must be considered to design context-specific and psychosocial-integrated health mechanisms and support systems for the world’s current and future young population in a way that is cognisant of threats to social and health equality posed by a changing climate.

5. Expand existing health systems
Integration of both short- and long-term mental health support into existing health systems and DRR planning is crucial for the psychosocial well-being of communities and people affected by the climate crises.

Policy Brief 3: Opportunities, solutions and future generations

1. Create targeted early interventions and prevention programs for children and young people
These urgently-needed mechanisms include programmes for schools to build awareness and develop emotional coping skills, integrating mental health counselling services and preparing teachers and caregivers to create safe spaces for children to learn about climate change facts as well as to share their feelings.

2. Support community-led approaches
Community-led approaches such as citizen assemblies on climate action could act as a cooperative platform where multiple stakeholders – communities, scientists, mental health care practitioners and governments – can discuss and establish trust.

3. Accelerate global commitments, such as the SDGs and NDCs
Global commitments and related initiatives, such as the SDGs, Paris Agreement, and climate action decision platforms (such as COP) can help effectively address climate risks on mental health and increase awareness of the issue.

4. Integrate mental health into climate action planning by including relevant services into national adaptation planning
This should also be supported by meaningful financial commitments.

5. Enhance existing capacities
Given the substantial shortage of support staffing alongside with the modest budget allocated to mental healthcare globally, significant shares should be used for training care providers and providing cost-effective online education programs on good mental health practices.

6. Use public-private partnerships to promote collaboration and steer innovative solutions from digital technology
These can include utilising online services (education, support tools), early detection of mental health trends by natural language processing, and the creation of climate resilient cities and communities.