Climate Change Is a Health Issue

Climate change will affect the health of most populations in the next decades and put the lives and wellbeing of millions at risk.

A groundbreaking report by The Lancet and University College London found that ‘the effects of climate change on health will affect most populations in the next decades and put the lives and wellbeing of millions of people at increased risk’.

The report says a new advocacy and public health movement is urgently needed to adapt to the effects of climate change on health. It also emphasises the need for the threat of climate change for humankind to be seen as a health issue.

Health experts say that dealing with climate change requires a two-pronged approach. Firstly, mitigation measures that reduce the severity of climate change by drastically reducing carbon emissions in the short term; and, secondly, the ability to adapt to the health impacts.

The report outlines six ways in which climate change impacts on health: changing patterns of disease and morbidity; the security of food, water and sanitation; the vulnerability of human settlements; extreme meteorological events; and likely mass-population migration.

There is overwhelming evidence for human-made global warming

The Lancet report is part of a growing body of research about the implications of climate change on health as the overwhelming evidence from climate change science warns of the dangerous consequences for human life if current trends in global warming are not urgently addressed.

The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that global warming is ‘unequivocal’ and there is overwhelming evidence for human-made global warming.

The IPCC provides a rigorous assessment of the published and peer-reviewed research on climate change, and its report was compiled by 1,250 expert authors from over 130 countries.

Even if targets to limit an increase in global temperature to 2°C are met – and that is a very big ‘if’ – our planet will be changed forever.

According to experts, the effects will be severe: floods, droughts, heatwaves and storms will worsen.

Sea levels will rise, threatening coastal habitation. Food and water will be less secure, impacting on the public health of billions of people.

Global temperature rises above 2°C are feasible – in fact, likely without drastic action – and the planet then enters into dangerous, even catastrophic territory.

It will also happen here

Australia is very vulnerable to the effects of climate change. We are already the driest inhabited continent on earth and are vulnerable to the dangers of extreme heat and drought.

We are home to many ecological systems that are at risk.

Australians are overwhelmingly coastal dwellers. Our industries and urban centres face water crises. Our economy, including food production and agriculture, is under threat.

According to NSW Health, by 2050 NSW is likely to experience an average increase in temperature of 1-3°C across the State, which would have ‘both acute and insidious health impacts’.

The Department flags that:

‘More frequent heatwaves will  result in increased hospital admission for heat-related illness. Changes to the social, economic and cultural fabric of communities, particularly in rural areas, as a result of more frequent or longer droughts will also affect the mental health burden in those communities.’

WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION FACTSON CLIMATE CHANGE

  • Climate change affects the fundamental requirements for health – clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter.
  • The global warming that has occurred since the 1970s caused over 140,000 excess deaths annually by the year 2004.
  • Many of the major killers such as diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, malaria and dengue fever are highly climate-sensitive and are expected to worsen as the climate changes.
  • Areas with weak health infrastructure – mostly in developing countries – will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare and respond.
  • Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases through better transport, food and energy-efficient choices can result in improved health.

The main health risks in Australia from climate change include:

  • health impacts of weather disasters (floods, storms, cyclones, bushfires)
  • health impacts of temperature extremes including heatwaves
  • mosquito-borne infectious diseases (dengue fever, Ross River virus)
  • food-borne infectious diseases and other health risks from poor water quality
  • increases in urban air pollution
  • mental health consequences of social, economic and demographic dislocations.