Climate change and health behaviors: how are they both shaping each other’s?

When we think about how climate change impact our health the first things that probably popped-up is the effect of air pollution or heat stresses on mortality and hospitalizations. It’s normal, these topics are, by far, the most studied ones in the scientific literature. Our new article goes beyond these traditional outcomes and provide a literature review and framework to study how climate change is impacting our health behaviors and, the other way around, how a smart promotion of health behaviors can help mitigate and adapt to climate change. Presentation below.

The impact of climate change on health behaviors

Health behaviors are the actions we undertake and that relate to our health, like practicing physical activity, having good sleep hygiene, eating healthy, limiting our alcohol consumption. With ongoing climate change, the impact of the natural environment on our behaviors is likely to become increasingly important in the coming years. In our recent article we synthetize around 50 scientific articles showing how rising temperatures, extreme weather events, air pollution or again rising sea level are threating our eating behaviors, physical activity, sleep, and the consumption of substances, alcohol or tobacco. We found that climate change has both direct and indirect effects on behaviors. For example, extreme heat is directly impacting human physiology and our capacity to be physically active and sleep well. Regarding indirect effects, extreme weather events and natural disasters can impact our mental health which subsequently deteriorate our sleep; they can also impact physical activity and sport through the deterioration of sport facilities, infrastructures, bike paths and pedestrian walkways. Overall, it is clear that climate change will increasingly shape our health behaviors in the future and ask us strong anticipation and adaptation.

How can health behaviors influence climate change (for better or worse)?

In return, our health behaviors could have a significant impact on climate change. This impact can be positive, by participating in activities targeting climate change mitigation and adaptation. It could also be negative, notably via engaging in health behaviors that increase a person’s carbon footprint (the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities of a particular individual). In other words, it’s not because a behavior is healthy that it is sustainable.

The role of health behaviors for mitigating climate change. At the individual level, the two actions that can have the bigger impact on climate mitigation are two well-studied health-related behaviors: the reduction of meat consumption and the shift from motorized trips to active transportation. A review estimated that shifting from a standard diet that includes meat consumption to an ovolactovegetarian diet (meat- and fish-free, but consumption of eggs and dairy products) could reduce individuals’ emissions by an average of 35%. It is also well demonstrated that active transportation, alone or in combination with public transports, can significantly contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases emissions from the transportation system.

The potential, unintentional, amplification of climate change by health behaviors. Beyond these adaptation and mitigation effects, some health-related behaviors can also amplify climate change. A study showed that physical activity-related travel (e.g., driving or flying to practice a specific activity) could represented up to 26% of our annual carbon footprint. Eating behaviors have an impact on climate change from food production, storage, and packaging, to food processing, distribution, sales, and waste. This impact is independent from a food’s nutrition quality, meaning that, in some cases, healthy food could contribute to climate change more than unhealthy food.

So, what?

Our new article shows, first, that the role of climate change should be taken very seriously by those involved in the promotion of health behaviors, from nutritionists to sport coaches and any stakeholders involved in health promotion initiatives. It is extremely likely that climate change will increasingly ask us to adapt and change our lifestyle in the coming years, where it’s not already the case. Second, because health behaviors are not necessarily sustainable, we need to stop promoting behaviors that can have a positive effect on one’s health but a high environmental impact, this notably include a lot of sport practices and some famous diets. Third, the promotion of health behaviors could have an important contribution to climate change adaptation if we continue developing initiatives fostering individual and community resilience, like the ones presented in this article. We quickly need to invent new ways of promoting health behaviors that can contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation. 

  • Our article also include a long section on health equity and the implications for behavior changes that should take a second blog post to be developped.
  • Comics for this article are available here in both French, English and Spanish. Feel free to reuse for communicating the idea to larger audiences.

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