Is Affordable Healthcare the Solution to the Climate Crisis?

Rising temperatures, wildfires, warmer oceans, and major storms continue to wreak havoc on the U.S. and abroad. The World Health Organization estimates that between 2030 and 2050, climate change will cause 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition caused by crop shortages, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress. All this damage will result in around $2-4 billion a year in additional health costs by 2030. Meanwhile, around half the global population still lacks access to essential healthcare services.

When we talk about combating climate change, the conversation often focuses on sustainable energy, reducing carbon emissions, and conserving the environment. However, a new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that healthcare might have a role to play as well.

Researchers found a direct link between increasing access to affordable healthcare and reducing the effects of climate change. Could medicine be the solution we’ve been looking for?

Bartering for Healthcare in Rural Indonesia

The study examined the relationship between climate and health in Gunung Palung National Park in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Nonprofit organizations Alam Sehat Lestari and Health In Harmony set up a healthcare clinic in the area in 2007 in collaboration with the local government. The facility was able to serve thousands of patients over the next 10-plus years by accepting barter as payment. Patients were able to trade tree seedlings, handicrafts, and labor for free healthcare services. This system was designed in conjunction with the leaders of the community.

The clinic would also provide discounts to villagers if they could show proof of reductions in illegal logging, incentivizing everyone to conserve the local environment. This resulted in a 70% decline in deforestation over the next ten years, equal to more than 6,770 acres of rainforest.

Trees pull carbon out of the air naturally, thus aiding in the fight against climate change. They also support biodiversity, a key food source for developing nations. Every second, more than 100 trees disappear from tropical forests around the world. Developing nations often turn to deforestation as a source of revenue, especially when economic opportunities are scarce.

To conduct the study, the authors examined health records over the 10-year period along with satellite images of the surrounding environment. Looking at the results, they say increasing access to healthcare with clear incentives for conserving the environment could solve two problems at once, reducing the effects of climate change while improving the quality of life in the developing world.

“The results illustrate a strong link between human health and conservation in tropical forests in the developing world,” says UC Santa Barbara’s Andy MacDonald, one of the authors of the study.

The decline in deforestation translates into $65 million in avoided carbon emissions, when translated to the European energy market. The clinic also led to a dramatic reduction in the spread of infectious diseases, such as malaria, and lower rates of tuberculosis and diabetes.

A Blueprint for the World

The authors say the study could provide a blueprint for communities all over the developing world. Co-author Susanne Sokolow, a senior research scientist at Stanford, commented, “This is a case study of how to design, implement and evaluate a planetary health intervention that addresses human health and the health of rainforests on which our health depends.”

They point out that around 35% of the world’s protected natural resource areas are either owned, managed, or used by Indigenous peoples; however, national leaders rarely consider these communities when implementing their healthcare and climate policies.

The Indonesian clinic found success by reaching out to and gaining the support of local leaders. The nonprofits were able to build a sustainable ecosystem that simultaneously protects human health. This includes access to healthcare, and also essential knowledge and training, such as the prevention of waterborne diseases, teaching locals how to purify their water supplies, and building canopies to provide shade that reduces the local temperature.

Monica Nirmala, the executive director of the clinic from 2014 to 2018 and current board member of the nonprofit Health In Harmony, says, “The data support two important conclusions: human health is integral to the conservation of nature and vice versa, and we need to listen to the guidance of rainforest communities who know best how to live in balance with their forests.”

The group says it’s currently working on expanding to Brazil and Madagascar.

As for the clinic, it’s still in operation in Indonesia, but the COVID-19 crisis has complicated the situation on the ground. Researchers say they are using the opportunity to test the resiliency of the system they helped put in place.

Andy MacDonald added, “We would expect illegal logging activity to respond to changes in timber market prices or loss of income associated with COVID-19. We want to know whether the interventions buffered communities against these effects, as well as whether they increased the communities’ resilience in terms of health and wellbeing.”

Healthcare is a basic human need and should be top of mind as we continue to discuss the effects of climate change. 

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