Call for proposals: WHO project on ethical climate and health research

Overview and objectives
Climate change is our most serious global health threat. And it is intensifying. Millions of people are at risk globally. We are only just beginning to understand the full range of health impacts associated with climate change. Research into climate and health, including both mitigation and adaptation responses is therefore essential, but such research gives rise to a range of ethical challenges. Studies investigating the nature and magnitude of health harms resulting from climate change can, for example, raise complex questions about how to communicate the risks of certain types of environmental exposures, especially when there are not yet many actionable ways to mitigate such risks.

Conducting research with no prospect of direct benefit amongst communities facing multiples sources of disadvantage, including what ancillary care or complementary services might be appropriate, also presents serious ethical challenges, including how to safeguard against extractive research practices. Different approaches to addressing or mitigating the health impacts of climate change will often require demanding trade-offs. Some of these might for example involve trade-offs between health gains, economic opportunities, individual choices, and other dimensions of wellbeing. The presence of these trade-offs further underlines how central ethics is in conducting research on climate change and health, and in navigating the potential options that can and should be used in response.

The WHO Health Ethics and Governance Unit invites proposals designed to help facilitate the promotion of ethically sound and equitable climate and health research. We particularly welcome proposals reflecting the priorities and experiences of communities most affected by climate change. We are also aware that there is a serious lack of data regarding the health impacts of climate change for some populations and on some topics: the experiences of local and Indigenous Peoples are particularly under-represented. The impacts of climate change on mental health, and effective policy responses are also under-researched. We therefore also welcome proposals in these and other under-represented areas.

Proposals can address any ethical dimension of research into climate change and health, including both adaptation and mitigation responses, bearing in mind our commitment to global equity and the need for practical ethical guidance for the global health research community.

This call for proposals is the first step in an ambitious three-year project to develop an agenda for conducting ethical research into climate change and health. The call and associated commissioned and desk research will be followed by regional and global convenings to discuss findings and recommendations from the first stage, and the development of normative frameworks and supporting guidance.

Themes of particular interest include, but are not limited to:
Ethical challenges in conducting research on health impacts of climate change, as well as mitigation and adaptation strategies:

What unique or novel ethical issues does research in health and climate change give rise to? What ethical obligations does research in the face of climate uncertainty give rise to? Are there important ethical differences between research into mitigation and research into adaptation? What obligations do researchers have to research participants exposed to dangerous climate risks? What do these obligations entail? How can they be addressed by researchers and funders? What if these risks are extreme and may even involve existential threats? How can we ensure that research is non-extractive – that it does not transfer its benefits away from the populations being involved in the research? What obligations arise when conducting research with no prospect of direct benefit amongst communities facing multiples sources of disadvantage, including what ancillary care or complementary services might be appropriate? How might these questions vary for different kinds of research into health and climate change? Are our criteria and procedures for research ethics oversight adequate to the complex ethical challenges of research in the climate and health field? Given the interdisciplinary nature of research into health and climate change, how can meaningful participation between disciplines be promoted, particularly given the status and power ordinarily conferred on the human life sciences?

Setting priorities for research and action:

Given the scale and urgency of the impacts of climate change on health, what research topics should be given priority and why? How can we decide what resources should be allocated to research and what to direct response? Do we need to prioritise between mitigation and adaptation? How should various actors in the research and policy ecosystem assess priority areas for research? Substantively how do you balance considerations of urgency, need, opportunity, potential scalability, potential for policy impact, etc. Procedurally, how do you involve different stakeholders in setting the agenda, nationally, regionally, globally – and ensure different voices appropriately feed into priority setting, including scientific expertise, lived experience, representation of groups who may be disproportionately impacted or at greatest risk of health-related impacts?

Justice considerations and the distribution of benefits and burdens:

How can we identify and address trade-offs across different affected parties, geographically, economically, generationally, including how the positive and negative impacts of different approaches are distributed? What kinds of non-human interests matter morally in decisions about the distribution of benefits and harms in research into health and climate change? On the basis of what criteria can we assess the nature of a benefit or a burden? How can we incorporate benefits and burdens to non-human parts of the environment into obligations to ensure fairness in their distribution? What, if any, moral discounting is defensible in considering possible trade-offs between human and non-human health when assessing the social value of research?

Assessing net benefit and trade-offs between different types of health gains and other social, economic, ecological, cultural considerations:

What kinds of trade-offs might be required between different types of health gain? How do we assess, factor in and adjudicate between direct human health gains and other benefits such as economic, ecological or broadly cultural benefits? How can we incorporate the value of non-human individuals, species, systems and ecosystems into a plausible account of the social value of research in climate change and health? Who can speak for non-human interests when assessing the social value of research, under what authority and what factors should they take into account?

Representation, power, and epistemic justice in shaping the climate and health research agenda and practice:

Should some groups have special authority in setting the research agenda because of specific expertise, lived experience or greater exposure to the effects of climate change? How we can address unequal representation, under-represented voices and promote transdisciplinary approaches including via meaningful approaches to power-sharing, co-creation and co-design of research when setting the research agenda in health and climate change? How can power imbalances and inequalities be addressed? These questions are particularly urgent in relation to Indigenous Peoples, local groups and those who have been historically marginalised, and already experience disproportionately poor health. How then can the ongoing effects of epistemic injustice – the systematic devaluing of certain forms of knowledge, knowledge producers and knowledge transmitters – be addressed in the setting of the research agenda in health and climate change?

Valuing health, with a climate lens:

As we move toward measuring the health impacts, and potential benefits associated with climate change to inform decisions about different strategies, how can we think about measuring what benefits count, over time and across various types of health and broader benefits and potential harms associated with these strategies? Are current approaches to health economic modelling appropriate or adaptable? How do we value statistical future lives versus currently existing lives?

Bearing in mind the aims of this proposal, a range of activities may be planned including:

  • Theoretical and conceptual analyses of ethical issues arising in research into climate and health
  • Guidance addressing particular ethical issues and challenges in climate and health research
  • Systematic reviews of relevant literature
  • Case studies
  • Empirical research incorporating novel data collection and analysis
  • Participatory approaches to the development of research and research agendas
  • The development of capacity strengthening and training resources in the ethics of research in climate and health.

Proposals should clearly identify intended outputs and outline how these can support the development of ethical research into health and climate change.–who-project-on-ethical-climate-and-health-research?mc_cid=bdb65b0c53&mc_eid=90cca92d8e

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