Climate change poses the greatest threat to global health of this century and requires urgent action. Contrary to popular belief, this action isn’t up to world leaders alone.
Many stakeholders including researchers, policy makers, health professionals, and local government play an important role in delivering action on climate change that can support health and minimise negative health impacts.
Endeavouring to foster collaboration and knowledge exchange in this area, UCL Public Policy ran a series of roundtable discussions on climate change and health in May 2023. We brought together local and national policy makers across health and climate change, researchers, funders, and key public health stakeholders to discuss key challenges and opportunities in climate change and health in the UK. Over two sessions, participants discussed limitations to current action, evidence and policy gaps, and the changes needed to harness co-benefits and improve health through effective climate action. Cross cutting these topics, one key challenge emerged, with substantial benefits for health and the environment if addressed; siloes.
Climate change and health is an inherently siloed topic area, with both domains largely isolated from each other in both research and policy making. During UCL Public Policy’s roundtable sessions, many stakeholders highlighted that this issue is especially notable in local government. Climate change and public health teams address the needs of the same local communities but work independently and without knowing each other or of areas of overlap in their work. Limited financial resources and team capacity plays a leading role in this issue in local government, limiting opportunities for individuals to break down these barriers.
Siloes between research also present key challenges. While there are many researchers who work across climate change and health, the Lancet Countdown team for example, research funding, publication, and career progression all prioritise specialisation within a single discipline. As such, structural barriers make transdisciplinary research challenging, especially for early and mid-career researchers.
Similar barriers create siloes between climate change and health researchers and policy makers. In theory, research and evidence should be conducted to inform high quality, impactful policy making. This requires communication and shared objectives between researchers and policy makers. However, in practice, researchers and their research outputs are increasingly siloed from policy makers in both climate change and health, as their objectives misalign and are not mutually supported by funding and academic incentives to do so. Policy makers need to make policy, while researchers need to publish in journals and secure funding, both of which prioritise disciplinary focus and ground-breaking findings that do not necessarily answer policy questions.
The siloes between climate change and health researchers, policy makers, and individual topic areas may be numerous, but transdisciplinary working must be embraced in this area for effective action. Evidence on climate change and health interventions must be cross-cutting and rooted in collaboration between research and policy. Policy in this area must also align climate change and health priorities, integrating consideration of both across individual policy areas.
Despite the challenges, local governments in the UK are taking climate action that is busting siloes and delivering co-benefits for health. For example, Southwark Council and the Guys’ and St. Thomas’ Foundation developed a partnership to cut emissions and maximise public health through increasing active travel. The council implemented traffic and movement plans to reduce individual car usage and increase active travel such as walking and cycling. This cut emissions in the borough, which is an important element of climate change mitigation. Importantly, the measures also improved air quality and increased exercise amongst residents, delivering significant health benefits.
This example and many others compiled by Friends of the Earth highlight that climate action at the local level can deliver massive co-benefits for health. Importantly, this only works when health and climate specialists work together, breaking down persistent siloes. Integrating health into the tracking and evaluation of these climate interventions is also essential. Through delivering evidence on the potential health benefits of climate action in practice, this evidence can motivate further action through the positive vision for a healthy future that health co-benefits deliver.
Work is also being done to address siloes between research and policy in climate change and health. For example, recent work by UCL and the Local Government Association to foster collaboration between local authorities and researchers on climate (and often health) policy challenges and the London Research and Policy Partnership (LRaPP) work to connect researchers and local government policy makers to improve collaboration and co-development of research and policy. Concurrently, the UK Health Security Agency’s Centre for Climate Change and Health is creating a system to distil and present relevant evidence to local authorities to support evidence-based policy making. Together, these initiatives and others have the potential to improve both climate change and health research and policy by increasing use and relevance of evidence.
While barriers between different health and climate change policy and research areas persist, these siloes can and must be overcome. Innovative action at local councils has demonstrated the benefits of this work, and action is already being taken to improve communication across research and policy realms. While essential, such work must go further to bring key stakeholders together for effective climate change and health action, challenging the structural factors creating siloes and changing cultures to prioritise collaboration.
For further details on UCL Public Policy’s work in this area, please see this page.