The Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCOB) is exploring how ethical considerations can help to inform policy decisions when weighing-up options available for combatting health impacts of climate change.

The ‘environment and health’ is a priority area for the NCOB, as set out in our new strategy. Within this area, we have decided to focus on how ethics can support UK policymakers who need to navigate the immediate and enduring global threat to health that climate change poses.

The negative health impacts of climate change are significant and wide-ranging. Increasingly frequent extreme weather events such as heatwaves, storms and floods are leading to death and illness. Air pollution, a driver of climate change, affects many people’s respiratory health has been recognised as a cause of death in the UK. And there is growing evidence that points to climate change being a cause of poor mental health.

Those who already experience marginalisation in society due to health, racial, gender and economic inequalities are those who are affected the most by health impacts of climate change. We need to ensure that policy decisions taken do not exacerbate the situation or lead to widening inequalities.

The policies we develop must be able to resolve complex trade-offs. For example, in healthcare, some treatments may provide immediate benefits to a few people but may have long-term damaging effects for the environment that could justify reducing use or their removal altogether.

We believe by embedding ethics into these decisions we can provide policymakers with the tools they need to make the best choice possible.

Professor John Coggon, Member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and co-Chair of the Environment and Health Advisory Board said:

We know new and existing approaches that offer ways to adapt to or mitigate changes to our environment will likely present trade-offs that need to be considered carefully. As such, it is essential for ethics to be engaged in these decisions and this is why guidance on how decision-makers can appropriately consider ethics will be so useful.

To inform our work, which we will publish by the end of this year, we are inviting two tenders:

  1. An ethics literature review
  2. A legal and regulatory overview

These commissions will provide useful and much needed insights, which we will use to inform our report and the case studies that we intend to identify and collate next year.

The case studies we develop will showcase the real trade-offs policymakers and others are dealing with in their work to tackle the health impacts of climate change. This will help to highlight where and how ethics could be better embedded in policy and engaged for the benefit of us all.