When Climate is a Health Story – Improving Reporting of Climate & Health at COP28

By Ida Jooste, Global Health Advisor 

With this story, our audience feels the connection.” 

Chemtai Kirui, Kass FM, Kenya

For the first time, there is malaria in the Highlands, when malaria used to be far away.  Cattle farmers are hearing complaints about milk contamination and that there’s a link between climate change and food-borne diseases. Crop farmers are  hearing that the ways they’ve had to adapt their farming practices in recent times actually introduce germs into the food cycle,” emphasises Kirui.

Climate’s impact on health as a story resonates with our audience


Chemtai is one of five media fellows of the Wellcome Trust-Internews program which saw journalists travel to COP28 in Dubai in late 2023 with the specific purpose of learning about how climate impacts on human health.  

For Chemtai, the intense deliberations on this topic and the networking opportunities in Dubai opened all the doors to help her tell this story with authority and in an impactful way. Chemtai filed at least half a dozen stories from COP28 and is now pursuing in-depth stories on topics like how climate change causes changes in insect life-cycles, for example. This is of interest to farmers, who keep a constant watch on vector-borne diseases. Chemtai’s editor is delighted about the feedback about such stories from the KassFM audience, who are from the agricultural heartland of Kenya. The indigenous language radio and TV outlet believes in only following stories that matter in their viewers’ and listeners’ lives. To survive, farmers need healthy animals and crops. 

For the other media fellow from Kenya, Hellen Shikanda of Nation Media, the experience has been the same. As soon as Hellen realised the significance of a first-ever dedicated Health Day at a COP and saw the extensive space and time dedicated to the Climate-Health nexus, she managed to persuade Nation Media to create a special Climate-Health pull-out edition with dozens of stories, feature articles, and opinion pieces on the topic. “How Climate impacts our Health was trending during the COP, and because of what I learnt there, the story will be kept alive”, says Hellen.  

Hellen’s reports included news from the WHO Health Pavilion. Her reports also reflected the fact that a record number of Health Ministers – 65! – attended COP28, who together with academia and climate activists called for urgent action on climate and health at the COP. Nation Media has wide reach throughout East Africa and sets the news agenda for the region, meaning the ClimateXHealth issue has leapt into prominence. 

With a clear appetite established for these ClimateXHealth stories, Hellen is following up on the human stories of coping with loss and disruption.

El Niño came with its fancy name and destruction and we all learnt about how more frequent weather calamities are as a result of climate change. There’s a man in Marsabit who lost all his cattle. Every single one. He has also lost his voice; he has not spoken since that day.”

Hellen Shikanda, Nation Media, Kenya

In telling his story, Hellen is introducing her audience to the mental health impacts of climate change.  Hellen is also following the science that due to climate change, some pathogens occur in new places. Rift Valley Fever is a viral zoonosis that affects animals primarily, but may also infect humans and now it is on the rise. Insights from COP28 and further consultation with researchers at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) KEMRI and the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya (ILRI) is helping Hellen break down the science of how zoonotic disease patterns are impacted by climate change. Higher temperatures increase the duration of tick activity over the year, for example, and that could explain an increase in tick-borne diseases. 

HJN Climate-Health media fellows interviewing Global Fund CEO Petter Sands at COP28 in Dubai. Photo: Supplied/Internews

Both Hellen and Chemtai are also writing stories about climate refugees in Kenya, people displaced because of drought and flooding. In an exclusive interview for  fellows arranged at the COP with Peter Sands, the Executive Director of the Global Fund, he spoke to the journalists about how extreme weather events are placing a strain on health systems. In Kenya, some people who’ve had to evacuate their homes are now in unfamiliar environments and not able to conveniently access chronic  medication as before. Already reports are coming in of people having to default on anti-retroviral therapy for HIV treatment, which would have serious consequences for their health management.  

What drought in the Amazon means for human health  

For Ana Amaral, who usually writes political news and analysis for Folha de S.Paulo in Brazil, the COP experience was a revelation in that she saw how easily and readily the Climate-Health story tells itself. 

The Amazon’s ecosystem is transforming in front of our eyes”, says Ana, “and people in Brazil are talking about it – the harm to the ecosystem and to livelihoods. Now I will also write about the health impacts of what is happening to the Amazon and its tributaries and rivers”.  

The iconic rainforest experienced its worst drought on record in 2023. Together, deforestation, El Niño and climate change are exacerbating the water crisis. Already, decades of oil extraction and spills into the river systems have contaminated water sources. With the drought, these impacts are amplified, so Ana is writing with urgency about how the end of fossil fuels is a health intervention. She was thrilled to get a scoop interview with WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus in the corridors of COP28 in Dubai about the high expectations he had that the Health Day and other health focused discussion at COP28 would create a shift in awareness that the climate crisis is a health crisis. ‘The end of fossil fuels is a health intervention; is how Ana is labelling her COP story series. “It is tragic to see what is happening to river ecosystems. The lower the water level, the more dangerous the impact from oil contamination. This disaster recipe means fish are dying and this means not only that protein sources are depleted but also that the dead fish are polluting the water as they decompose.” Ana is spending time in the Amazon to track the enormous impact on the security and health of millions of people who can no longer rely on nature as they had always done.  

The other issue headlining in Brazil at the moment is dengue fever which has been declared a public health emergency in several states in the country. Health experts have warned of an uptick in dengue as temperatures rise around the globe.  

Across the continent in Peru, the climate impacts are similar to those in Brazil. Alberto Ñiquen, a freelance journalist and media fellow based in Lima is watching with concern as the humanitarian community is responding to elevated dengue fever activity in many parts of his country too. This follows last year’s record-breaking dengue outbreak. And like Ana, Alberto is troubled about the Amazon and its degradation and what that means for human health. A story he is looking into will highlight the immediate health benefits of the agreement made at COP28 to signal the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era. Climate change has often been about future projections, but there have been (and will be) health costs to reliance on fossil fuels, which are felt at the site of extraction. The indigenous community of Cuninico in Loreto, the largest Amazon region in Peru, is experiencing ongoing health impacts due to contaminated water, soil and air – some of it lingering since  substantial oil spills in 2014 and 2022.  

At the COP convening in Dubai, Alberto was able to meet vital contacts for one of the stories he’s pursuing, a Call to Action for Peru (and the world), following the Lancet Countdown report with its powerful projections showing  the mounting health impacts of climate change and also how bold climate action is critically needed to secure a healthier world. Alberto was able to secure an in-depth interview with Dr. Marina Romanello, the Executive Director of the Lancet Countdown, a climate change and health researcher at University College London, hearing first-hand about the robust data that made up the countdown report and drawing inspiration from her passion to make a difference while there’s still a chance.   

COP28 a watershed moment for the health of vulnerable communities 

“Dr Maria Neira, the WHO Director for Environment, Climate Change and Health, has said that COP28 is a watershed moment to address health. From global experts and from the countdown report, we hear how the climate crisis is showing itself in increased food insecurity and through climate-sensitive diseases – I want to show how this impacts Peru, and particularly women and indigenous people”.  

Alberto feels the climate health crisis urges humanity to find a solution, which may come from revisiting ancient indigenous practices that emphasised sustainability and respect for nature. “I’m learning that exploring intercultural health (the equal recognition between indigenous medicine and biomedicine) in the context of climate change makes a lot of sense”. We need to find a solution for the future and some of it may come from the past. 

Alberto also wants to give recognition to the disproportionate way in which women are impacted by the climate crisis. Over the past five years, women from districts in the South of Lima have been developing leadership to bring attention to the differentiated health impacts of climate change. Spending time with them to tell their stories showed that in these poverty-stricken areas, a high rate of households are headed by women – some of childbearing age and some older. They are bearing and taking care of children amidst a greater risk of heatwaves and floods and thus a greater risk to human health. Through this story, Alberto will make visible the good practices these neighborhood leaders carry out, finding workarounds for poor sanitation and health infrastructure.  

The impact of climate on women’s physical and mental health is also keenly felt in Bangladesh, where media fellow Sushanta Sinha is a special correspondent with Ekattor Television. Sushanta says the fellowship has given him the opportunity to deepen his knowledge on the science of climate’s impact on health and to travel to the southern coastal zone of Bengal where rising salinity has a profound impact on agriculture and food security. “If rice production is stable, Bangladesh is stable. This stability is being threatened by low or poor crop production with an impact on the GDP of Bangladesh and the livelihoods of many. Poor nutrition in turn impacts their health”. Studies have shown that two climate related factors are responsible for rising salinity of river, estuary and underground water in the Bay of Bengal: a reduced flow from the Ganga River feeding streams across the South-Western coast of Bangladesh, plus rising sea levels, meaning that saline water intrudes into these coastal areas. Sushanta will urge authorities to look to countries with similar problems for innovative solutions.  

Deaths data not the only number to report on  

“Another story is about data and how we in the media can challenge perceptions, says Sushanta. Using climate vulnerability indices, he is highlighting that news media tends to typically highlight the number of deaths from a climate calamity (e.g. deaths over a two week period as a result of a cyclone). Meanwhile, climate vulnerability data sketch a more nuanced and sustained problem: ongoing climate vulnerability affects many more people and shortens life expectancy significantly. Bangladesh has experienced violent cyclones in recent times and the focus on immediate impact (death) is important, Sushanta says. However,  the population needs to be made aware of ongoing vulnerability as a result, like low grade food production, the ongoing threat to livelihoods and poor living conditions. And the stress that comes with that.  

Climate change can cause instant death. That story is known.  

Now we have to tell the story of the ongoing suffering with poor sanitation through infrastructure damage and collapse, and the story of dried up water sources or water that is so salty, it makes people ill. This affects millions more”. 

Sushanta Sinha, Ekkator Television Special Correspondent

Journalists can explore Lancet Countdown data sets here: https://www.lancetcountdown.org/data-platform/ 

Journalists can learn more about El Nino’s impact on climate and health here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jjpfm_8JcJA&t=245s