Climate change, health and the voluntary sector

First published 15/01/20


If unchecked, human-driven climate change will cause food and water shortages, increased displacement of people, increased poverty and coastal flooding (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014). Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) Organisations have roles to play in preventing catastrophic climate change as well as in helping communities to adapt and respond to its probable effects in the South West of England.

1 – Preventing climate change

The four key prevention measures called for by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are:

  • More efficient use of energy
  • Greater use of low-carbon and no-carbon energy
  • Improved carbon sinks (A carbon sink is anything that absorbs more carbon than it releases as carbon dioxide, like a forest).
  • Lifestyle and behavioural changes

Intentional preventative impact

Some VCSE organisations working in health and social care have an intentional preventative impact on climate change. For example, an organisation that encourages people to insulate their houses or campaigns for people to cycle instead of drive may have reducing carbon emissions as a core objective. These charities are likely to already be measuring their impact in this area, perhaps also using measures to monitor how effectively they are changing attitudes and behaviour to reduce emissions.

Unintentional preventative impact

Some VCSE organisations may not have the prevention of climate change as a stated aim, but will often be conducting activities that lead to its the reduction of carbon emissions. One of the main reasons for this is that environmental factors such as pollution and access to green spaces are key determinants of health (National Children’s Bureau, 2012). So a charity, for example, that campaigns for more urban green spaces for children to play in will be chiefly aiming to reduce health inequalities, but will inevitably have a positive impact on reducing carbon in the atmosphere. These organisations have the potential to attract new funding or consolidate existing funding if they can demonstrate the impact they are having on global climate change in addition to their existing impact measures.

Unintentional worsening impact

All VCSE organisations, unless they are carbon neutral or negative, have a direct unintentional worsening impact on climate change, which is created as they drive to meetings, heat buildings, or conduct other carbon-emitting activities. This will vary greatly according to factors including:

  • the organisation’s size;
  • the number, size and age of its buildings;
  • the number of its staff, the nature and extent of travel that they do.

Given this variety, it would be unhelpful to suggest that there are universal measures that can be taken to mitigate direct unintentional negative impact. Instead, it is worth organisations conducting or commissioning an audit of this impact, and then creating a proportional action plan for reducing it. The Carbon Trust, for example, offers an online Carbon Footprint Calculator for Small and Medium Enterprises which could be a good place to start (Carbon Trust, 2019).

2 – Impact and adaptation in the UK

A – Climate change and the changing picture of health in the South West

Climate change will alter the kinds of health issues people will have. Anticipating these kinds of changes is a case of modelling different probabilities rather than accurately predicting, but the UKCP09 models of climate change suggest the following health issues are likely to become more common as the 21st century progresses. In each case the VCSE has a role to play in supporting communities to adapt to the health challenges, for example, through direct service provision and through information, awareness raising and community development.

  • Heat related deaths are predicted to increase by 70% in the 2020s and 260% in the 2050s. The report recommends that the public health response to this focuses on vulnerable people such as older people, particularly in urban areas where the phenomenon of the ‘urban heat island’ occurs (where an urban area is significantly warmer than surrounding rural areas).
  • Concentrations of airborne allergens, for example pollen and spores, are predicted to increase.
  • Coastal and river flooding is predicted to increase. The report recommends that measures are promoted to ensure the continuity of NHS services and health care facilities including residential / care homes during floods to limit the impacts of climate change
  • Disease-bearing insects such as mosquitoes and ticks are likely to transmit more diseases. For example, the exotic tick Hyalomma marginatum and mosquitoes such as Aedes albopictus will become more likely. In other parts of Europe these species transmit Crimean-Congo Haemorrhagic Fever virus and chikungunya virus respectively.
  • Food-borne diseases may increase. For example ‘warmer weather and milder winters will allow pathogens such as Salmonella to grow more readily in food and will favour flies and other pests that affect food safety’. (Vardoulakis, 2012)

B – Climate refugees, a changing population and the role of VCSE organisations.

A range of different studies have suggested that one of the greatest single human consequences of climate change could be migration, with millions of people displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and severe drought. Norman Myers has argued that the number of climate refugees globally could reach 200 million by 2050 for reasons including desertification, lack of water, salination of irrigated lands and the depletion of biodiversity (Myers, 1997). Governmental structures have so far shown themselves to be poor at recognising the concept of climate migration or supporting climate migrants. It is likely therefore that voluntary sector organisations, including those working in health and social care, will expand the role they already fulfil, ‘filling a significant gap’ in providing the essential needs of refugees ‘which the state has a disincentive to adequately deliver on’ (Mayblin, 2018). The skills and experience associated with the VCSE at reaching into newer communities will be invaluable in achieving this.

Conclusion – working with funders           

You may have recognised your organisation at different points in this document. Perhaps your organisation’s work has an unintentional positive impact on climate change, or you have seen ways in which your organisation could support climate refugees. There is a risk, though, that if funders do not embrace and financially recognise such work, and given capacity and resource limitations within the sector, there will not be sufficient incentive for it to become part of VCSE organisations’ business as usual. It is in the interests of VCSE organisations, therefore, to advocate collectively for commissioners and other funders to build carbon-reduction criteria into their funding application processes, whether through social value or other frameworks. As is the case with people, businesses and nations, only by working together can VCSE organisations respond adequately to the threats posed by climate change.


Carbon Trust, 2019. SME Carbon Footprint Calculator. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 9 January 2019].

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014. IPCC AR5 Synthesis Report , Geneva: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Mayblin, L., 2018. Asylum and refugee support in the UK: civil society filling the gaps?. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 45(3), pp. 375-394.

Myers, N., 1997. Environmental Refugees. Population and Environment, 19(2), pp. 167-182.

National Children’s Bureau, 2012. Environmental Inequalities , London: National Children’s Bureau.

Vardoulakis, S., 2012. Health Effects of Climate Change in the UK 2012, London: Health Protection Agency.