SDG SERIES: Inconsistent translation from science to practice: SDGs and the health impacts of climate change

SDG Goal 13: Climate Action
SDG Goal 13: Climate Action

Cecilia Sorensen and Jay Lemery

In the upcoming weeks, the UN will choose how seriously to commit political resources to halt climate change. Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Agenda) addresses halting climate change as an overall goal but does not use climate science to underpin all the other goals upon which climate change will undoubtedly impact.1 Nor does Agenda convincingly acknowledge the link between climate, poverty and human health. As long as there is inconsistency, we will not see a comprehensive and adequate response to the threat of climate change on health, human rights or development.

Irrefutable evidence shows that climate change threatens human health. It manifests through extreme weather events, flooding, food insecurity, waterborne and vector-borne infections, violent conflict, poor air quality, as well as mental and heat related illness.2 Those most likely to suffer are vulnerable, marginalized and resource-poor communities.3

While extreme weather is a dramatic and discrete example of how climate change threatens human safety, most effects are multifaceted and manifest as exacerbation of poverty and chronic illness. The unwillingness to view climate change as a humanitarian crisis has led to squandering of time, dithering on action and engagement in half-measures incapable of addressing this increasing and irreversible threat. How is the science of climate change reflected in the goals and targets of the SDGs?

SDG 1.5: Build the resilience of the poor and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate related events 

The science: Climate-related impacts result from the interaction of climate hazards with man-made and natural systems

Science to practice: The SDGs accurately identify the risk that climate change poses to the world’s poor. The Agenda calls on States to implement the commitment made under the Framework Convention on Climate Change to mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020 to address the needs in developing countries for adaptation and mitigation.  However, it does not state that most climate-related changes occur secondary to the consumption patterns of the developed world. Until these links are made explicit in global agreements such as the SDGs, responsibility for climate change is not assigned, root causes are not addressed, and the poor’s exposure to risk will not change.

SDG 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

The science: Climate change threatens food production and food quality through increased risk of crop failure and declining crop yields associated with drought-related water shortage.

Science to practice? The SDGs acknowledge the need to implement climate “resilient agricultural practices.”4 They also promote the need to increase land ownership among the world’s poorest inhabitants, a prerequisite to food security. Therefore, the goals appear to acknowledge, although do not explicitly state, the link between climate change, food security and poverty. In terms of action, the SDGs propose to “correct and prevent trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets” and to “limit extreme food price volatility.”5 Market manipulation may abate food crises in the short term but is unlikely effect the roots of food insecurity or poverty and may not be possible if crops fail during periods of climate variation. There is no clear indication that the authors of the Agenda understand how climate change will affect agriculture. Therefore, the goal of ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture is unlikely to be met given the overlooked impacts of climate change.

SDG 3.3: Ensure healthy livesBy 2030, end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases 

The science: Climate change will alter the distribution and intensity of insect and rodent borne infections such as malaria, chikungunya, typhoid fever, typhus and more.6

Science to practice? The SDGs support the development of vaccines and medicines for infectious diseases that affect developing countries. They also support strengthening the capacity of early warning risk reduction systems. Although these are crucial steps to prepare for changing disease patterns, the goals do not state that climate change will affect these diseases of global concern.

SDG 3.9: By 2030, substantially reduce the number of deaths and illness from hazardous chemicals and air pollution 

The science: Ozone exposure and fine particulate matter, generated through burning fossil fuels is associated with adverse health effects, including cardiopulmonary and respiratory illness. One in eight deaths worldwide is linked to air quality.

Science to practice: The SDGs do not recognize the link between fossil fuel combustion and poor air quality. Deaths through poor air quality disproportionally affects the urban poor.

SDG 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all 

The science: Climate change impacts water security by altering rainfall patterns and water availability. Water scarcity and extreme rainfall impact hygiene standards and contribute to outbreaks of waterborne illness.

Science to practice? The SDGs acknowledge the need to “substantially increase water-use efficiency” but do not make the connection between water scarcity and climate change.7 By not making this connection explicit, the SDGs lose an opportunity to encourage policy makers to take definitive action to curb carbon emissions which would promote long-term water security.

SDG 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

The science: According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Change Change 2014 Synthesis Report continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, leading to pervasive and irreversible imacts for people and ecosystems.8 Limiting climate change with an aggressive plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, together with adaptation measures, can mitigate climate change risk.

Science to practice: The SDGs describe effective actions to combat climate change including strengthening resilience, improving policies, and enhancing global partnerships.  Still up for debate is how ambitious the plan to reduce emissions will be over the next 15 years and how seriously major carbon-generating nations will commit to change.

Bottom line: The SDGs show inconsistent and incomplete recognition of the link between human health, poverty and climate change. A global development agenda that neglects emerging evidence on these critical links is failing the world’s most vulnerable communities. The SDGs presented an opportunity for cohesive global action to address causes of climate change, and protect those people whose basic human rights, and especially the right to health, are at risk. The Agenda reflects a lack of cohesion and consistency, but there is still time for global actors to improve on this and keep climate change impacts and responses foremost as SDG implementation nears.

Cecilia Sorensen, MD, is a physician at the Denver Health and University of Colorado Hospital, USA

Jay Lemery, MD, is Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine, University of Colorado School of Medicine and Fellow, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.  He is co-editor of a forthcoming book Global Climate Change and Human Health: From Science to Practice, and was Guest Editor on the Health and Human Rights Journal special issue on Climate Justice and the Right to Health.


1 Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development -Finalised Text for Adoption (1August), available at:

2 B Levy and V Sidel, “Collective Violence Caused by Climate Change and How it Threatens Health and Human Rights”, Health and Human Rights Journal, 16/1, 2014, pp. 32-40; I Ahlgren, S Yamada and A Wong, “Rising Oceans, Climate Change, Food Aid, and Human Rights in the Marshall Islands”, Health and Human Rights Journal, 16/1, 2014, pp. 69-81; A Chang, D Fuller, et al. “Social Justice, Climate Change, and Dengue”, Health and Human Rights Journal, 16/1, 2014, pp. 93-104; B Meason and R Paterson, “Chikungunga, Climate Change, and Human Rights”, Health and Human Rights Journal, 16/1, 2014, pp. 105-112.

3 M. Robinson, “Foreword”, Health and Human Rights Journal, 16/1, 2014; J. Lemery, C. Williams, P. Farmer, “The Great Procrastination,” Health and Human Rights Journal, 16/1, 2014;

4 See note 1, para 2.4, p.13

5 See note 1, para 2.b, 2.c, p.13

6 See note 3, Robinson; also see B, Meason and R. Paterson, “Chikungunya, Climate Change, and Human Rights”, Health and Human Rights Journal, 16/1, 2014, pp 105-112 7 See note 1, para 6.4, p.16 8 Climate Change 2014. Synthesis report; Summary for Policymakers. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Available at: