NUS announces new efforts to tackle health threats posed by climate change

The United Nations organises a climate change conference every year, the Conference of Parties (COP), to provide an opportunity for countries to review the ongoing progress following the Paris Agreement on Climate Change signed by 196 parties in 2015. This year’s iteration – COP28 – sees diverse groups of stakeholders, from country leaders to youths, coming together to work towards a brighter future with a habitable climate.

Record high global temperatures and extreme weather events are just the tip of the climate change iceberg. Aside from the impact of these drastic climate events on ecosystems, we have to consider the public health threats posed by the climate crisis to help us prepare and adapt to impending health risks.

NUS has been doing its part to contribute to this cause by establishing programmes and research centres that will bridge knowledge gaps of the impact of climate change on human health through cutting-edge research and establishing networks for collaboration with key stakeholders.

The Climate, Environment and Health Programme launched by NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health (SSHSPH) is one such initiative that aims to develop interdisciplinary research on climate change and health with environmental science groups within Singapore and beyond.

NUS is also positioning itself as a regional forerunner in research on heat and health through its Heat Resilience and Performance Centre (HRPC) at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (NUS Medicine), which has been appointed the Southeast Asian (SEA) node of the Global Heat Health Information Network (GHHIN).

Announcements of the launch of the Climate, Environment and Health Programme as well as HRPC’s appointment as SEA node of GHHIN were made at the COP28 United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on 1 December 2023.

Establishing links and developing research on climate and health

Rising sea levels and unpredictable weather conditions can impact our environment and disrupt natural ecosystems. However, the public health threat posed by the climate crisis is another area that demands our attention and action. To cite some examples, such as the impact of poor air quality and changes to infectious disease transmission on public health due to climate change must be studied to build resilience against these impending risks.

In the newly minted Climate, Environment and Health Programme launched by SSHSPH, NUS researchers hope to establish strong links with environmental science groups and develop interdisciplinary research on climate and health within Singapore and the region.

Dr Kimberly Fornace, a visiting senior research fellow at SSHSPH and Associate Professor Yann Felix Boucher from the same school, will be leading the programme.

This new programme will tap on NUS’ expertise in data analysis, infectious disease modelling and technology development to drive climate change research that will investigate, monitor, and assess the impact of climate on public health and well-being in SEA. Through this programme, NUS hopes to facilitate collaborations across SEA to identify opportunities to monitor climate impacts on health and develop integrated environmental and health solutions.

Researchers from this programme will be engaging with policymakers and public and private stakeholders to increase awareness of climate change impacts on health and disseminate their research findings to create real-world impact. This new programme will also support and mentor students and early career scientists working on research on climate, environment and health.

Dr Fornace said, “While there have been strong research programmes conducted in climate modelling and environmental science and conservation, there remains a gap in the research on climate and health in Singapore.” Through this programme, Dr Fornace envisions NUS as an “enabler in mobilising communities and policymakers to facilitate greater collaborations in the development of climate change strategies and interventions that prioritise public health protection."

Assoc Prof Boucher added that this programme will “build and develop collaborative networks with partners across the region to identify opportunities to monitor climate impact on health and develop integrated environmental and health solutions.”

Building a regional network to tackle issues on heat and health

In 2023, the world reached record-high temperatures, with heatwaves blazing through countries, causing heat-related illnesses and heat stress. In a bid to find solutions to build heat resilience, the HRPC led by Associate Professor Jason Lee from NUS Medicine was launched in January 2023.

Starting 1 December 2023, the HRPC has been appointed as the Southeast Asian node of the GHHIN to further establish the Centre as a regional hub for future collaborations and knowledge-sharing on issues about heat and health. This appointment enables the Centre to work closely with international and regional partners to create and scale up innovative and collaborative research efforts to develop practical solutions that will enhance heat resilience in the SEA region.

By leveraging cutting-edge technologies and bringing together heat and health experts, the HRPC will lead the way in identifying knowledge gaps and reviewing current efforts to overcome the health challenges posed by extreme heat conditions.

Assoc Prof Lee, Director of HRPC, said, “This appointment to lead the new SEA regional heat health node allows us to foster more synergistic conversations with stakeholders, enhance existing collaborations and establish new partnerships to catalyse efforts to increase coordination and generate quicker dissemination of critical information relating to heat-related health risks and interventions within the region.”

A joint initiative by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the GHHIN provides a platform for a broad range of scientists, practitioners, and policymakers to share information, conduct research and promote evidence-based interventions against climate change.

Following the appointment by GHHIN, the Centre will be hosting Southeast Asia’s first three-day regional heat health forum in mid-2024 to catalyse more collaborative and aligned heat health research and policy efforts. This forum will bring together SEA-GHHIN Network partners to discuss and share practical solutions for heat resilience and health.