Tomorrow is Earth Day – and a good time to reflect on how climate change compounds social inequities. Climate change threatens everyone’s health and wellbeing, and its impact has become increasingly clear in recent years. Climate change is also a driver of health disparities amongst impoverished populations. This is particularly evident in inadequately housed and homeless populations around the world. 

Housing access and quality is a key determinant of individual and community resilience to climate pressures. The most obvious consequence of a lack of appropriate housing is exposure to the elements. Individuals who lack adequate shelter are the most exposed to storms, temperature, and other weather extremes. They are also exposed to indirect effects including contact with disease and pollutants. This is particularly problematic as the most affected populations already have significant health challenges and often lack access to adequate supports. Whether residing in sweltering heat islands in cities in North America or struggling to survive in the slums in Africa, illnesses compound and mortality rates increase. 

Tied to exposure is the problem of migration. For individuals and families experiencing poverty, the destruction brought on by storms, rising sea levels, and droughts leave them with little choice but to flee their environments to survive. This migration makes the effects of poverty worse and often leaves individuals and families residing in slums and experiencing all of the exposure pressures described above. This is particularly evident in low- and middle-income countries – countries that bear the greatest burden of climate change while contributing the least to the problem. 

These significant and growing problems require organized, evidence-based, and prevention-oriented responses. While issues such as climate-driven migration have been receiving significant attention, the key role of housing has not been substantively addressed. The lack of information is even more pronounced concerning exposure. 

Leveraging systematic reviews of the academic literature and think tanks held with experts in these areas, we are developing a global health response framework for addressing the threat of climate change for inadequately housed populations. This framework will be designed to guide policymakers and system leaders in addressing this issue. It will highlight key alignments with large-scale organized efforts to respond to climate change. Case studies will also be provided to illustrate each of the recommendations made. 

While our framework is not exhaustive, we hope that it will help enable organized, prevention-oriented responses to the climate impacts faced by the most impoverished individuals, families, and communities globally. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, neglecting the most marginalized in a global crisis negatively impacts everyone’s health. We are generating a tool grounded in the best available evidence to help us move from a reactive approach to a prevention-focused approach to help mitigate and adapt to the health impacts of climate change. Stay tuned for more information about the launch of our framework.

Where to go to Learn More

Sean Kidd is a Clinical Psychologist who has worked extensively in the area of youth homelessness. He is a Senior Scientist at CAMH and an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. He is leading a collaboration that is looking at climate-homelessness issues with support from the Living Within the Earth’s Carrying Capacity initiative of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). 

For more on the work of this group, see: www.homelesshub.ca/climate-homelessness