New research is shedding light on the correlations between climate change, social instability, and health.

This new body of research is revealing more about how climate change can have negative social consequences due to reduced availability and accessibility to resources. A recent commentary written by Sam Sellers, Senior Fellow at the UW Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHanGE)/Department of Global Health and Kristie Ebi and Jeremy Hess, UW Global Health, in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives looked at these linkages and ways they are already directly impacting human lives.

“Human health is an important piece of the relationship between climate change and social stability,” Sellers said. “When thinking about climate refugees, for example, human health plays a big role in affecting the nature of their migration and the resulting outcomes. Or when staples of life and commerce like food production – which is climate-sensitive – are threatened, instability is sure to increase, especially in low- and middle-income nations.”

While research studies have uncovered an undeniable relationship between climate, health, and social stability, a chasm in understanding relevant pathways remains. Connecting the dots between the three stands as a primary goal.

“New research in this area is trying to better understand causal pathways and how climate change affects conflict or violence or other forms of social instability,” Sellers explained. “What is A causing B, causing C? What are the effects of A on B and B on C?”

Another primary goal of new research in this area is formulating predictive models that could eventually be used for health policy interventions. The interconnectivity of climate change, local conditions, and response to disasters is omnipresent. If climate change weakens a certain health system capacity, for example, risk for infectious disease skyrockets, which can exacerbate risks of future outbreaks. The pre-existing governmental factors in these countries are also an important piece of the puzzle.

“When doing modeling of climate change and social stability risks, health has to be a piece of it,” Sellers said. “It’s also about good policy and making sure that health is at the forefront of efforts to stabilize communities. For example, what we find when migration or other forms of social instability occur in large scales is that there’s often a breakdown in governance prior to those events taking place.”  

The intersection of health systems and global health is especially important here, given the need for quick responses and detailed plans when disaster strikes. Sellers highlighted the importance of policymakers on global health issues and the impacts they can have.

“Climate change presents a lot of challenges and uncertainties. It’s important that our elected leaders are thinking about these issues, especially from a global health perspective, and the consequences of instability, outmigration, crime, and how that may affect people in Seattle and beyond,” Sellers said. “It is a problem that knows no borders.”