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Climate Change and Urban Health in Latin America

Lessons and next steps from the SALURBAL Project

Posted on November 22, 2022
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By: Victoria Rodríguez Villarreal and Katy Indvik

"Humanity has a choice: cooperate or perish. It is either a Climate Solidarity Pact – or a Collective Suicide Pact." - Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez, addressing over 100 world leaders at the opening of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt last week.

The consequences of climate change are being felt worldwide as temperatures continue to rise, and Latin America, among the regions set to be most severely impacted, is already facing immense and irreversible losses. Though national and international discussions have increasingly addressed the need for climate adaptation, more commitments and actions from developed countries are urgently required. 

The impacts of climate change include frequent and intense floods, heat waves, sea level rise, and droughts. While some countries can adapt to environmental changes, adaptation is often impossible: lives are lost, biodiversity is extinct, and habitats are changed permanently. In many cases, ecosystems are damaged beyond repair, disrupting people's lives and displacing others from their homes. 

This year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) marks the first time the concept of  "loss and damage" has been explicitly included in the agenda.  Speakers throughout the two week Conference called on those nations that have produced most of the emissions driving those damages to those who contributed least to the climate crisis to "compensate and be liable" to the world’s most vulnerable communities, who are at the forefront of climate change impacts.  Understanding the magnitude and distributions of these impacts is critical to designing and implementing effective response action - but critical knowledge gaps exist surrounding the health impacts of climate change, especially in the areas most vulnerable to change.

Increasingly, the SALURBAL project is working to document and quantify the impacts of climate change on the health and well-being of people living in cities across Latin America. As COP27 comes to a close, we reflect on some of our key findings to-date, and how this evidence can drive action to address this critical global challenge.

1. Did you know? SALURBAL has an ancillary study focused on climate-related mortality in Latin American cities.

As climate change increases in frequency, intensity, and duration, the compounding effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the region's biodiversity and has contributed to climate-related deaths and stalled decades of progress against poverty, food insecurity, and the reduction of inequality in the region. Understanding the connections between green spaces, such as urban parks and trees, and the mitigation of greenhouse gasses can help guide urban policies and interventions to address climate change and safeguard health.  Urban greenspaces can contribute to water security and mitigate flooding, reduce extreme temperatures, and help improve air quality. See examples of actions cities across the region are taking here and here.


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2. People in cities across Latin America are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution

Fifty-eight percent -172 million residents- in Latin American cities live in areas with air pollution levels that exceed WHO air pollution guidelines for fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Larger cities with higher GDP, greater motorization rates, and more congestion tend to have a higher PM2.5. In contrast, cities with higher population densities have lower levels of PM2.5. Urban planning and transportation policies can play a crucial role in addressing air pollution, and more information about these connections can inform urban interventions.

3. Climate change impacts on vulnerable populations

Extreme weather and climate change impacts, including intense rainfall, megadrought, and heat waves, are worsening and taking lives worldwide.  Some groups of people are more vulnerable to health impacts from extreme temperatures. SALURBAL research to-date documents these inequalities and can guide the development of mitigation and adaptation strategies to promote health and health equity.

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3A. Heat is associated with low birthweight across Latin American cities

SALURBAL researchers found that higher temperatures during months 7 to 9 of pregnancy are associated with lower birthweight, particularly in Mexico and Brazil, and that increased  maternal education can reduce theses temperature-birthweight associations.  These results highlight the importance of investing in improvements in maternal education, prenatal care, and efforts to create more equitable socioeconomic conditions overall. 

3B. Extreme temperatures are linked to disease and death, especially among older adults

Latin America has a large urban population at risk of heat exposure, yet few studies have documented the linkages between extreme temperatures and health in cities across the region. The SALURBAL team found that extreme temperatures are linked to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and deaths in cities across Latin America. Older adults are especially vulnerable to extreme temperatures – 7.5% of deaths were associated with  extreme heat and cold.  On very hot days, a one-degree Celsius increase in temperature could mean a 5.7% increase in deaths. These findings emphasize the need for cities to prepare for increasingly frequent and severe extreme temperatures, and to identify vulnerable populations, adapt critical infrastructure, and improve emergency response measures that will save lives as the climate changes.

3C. City characteristics can alter the health impacts of extreme temperatures

recent SALURBAL study found that cities with higher levels of poverty, segregation, and  income inequality experience greater increases in cold-related deaths among older adults.

4. There are interconnections between food systems, transport systems, and greenhouse gas emissions in Latin America

Transportation systems and options can affect people’s health in many ways,  including by influencing diet. Especially in larger Latin American cities, longer travel times and delays were associated with lower vegetable consumption and higher consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages

The Mexican diet has a lower carbon footprint than diets in other Latin American countries.  Dietary greenhouse gas emissions (GHCE) were lower in rural areas and individuals with low socioeconomic and educational attainment. These results raise important questions about environmental impacts and equity - often, those populations most likely to experience the impacts of climate change are those responsible for the smallest proportion of greenhouse gas emissions. 

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As climate-related disruptions to our social, economic, political, and environmental systems in our countries, cities, and communities intensify,  loss and damage undeniably affect some populations more than others.  Those on the frontline of these crises are often the ones who contributed the least to the problem. Improved understanding of the connections between climate change and health impacts can drive difficult conversations and commitments to climate action that safeguard health and wellbeing for all. At the same time, research documenting the often inequitable distribution of climate impacts across our cities, countries, and the planet is key to ensuring that these negotiations consider critical questions of equity and justice.

Posted in Health Equity, Air Pollution, Climate and Sustainability, Green Space, Maternal and Child Health, Food Environment