There is global consensus that an unstable climate underpinned by rising temperatures leads to poor health outcomes for the people we love, for those already vulnerable in the community and for the health system itself.
The Australian health sector is already feeling the effects of a warming climate. The Australian Medical Association, the peak body for doctors in Australia, officially declared a climate health emergency in 2019, joining health organisations around the world. Australians are still coming to terms with the aftermath of extreme weather events in recent years, the health impacts of which are physical and mental, immediate and long term. Seven in ten health professionals said climate change is already impacting public health in the largest ever survey of Australian health services.
Australia needs to actively prepare for 50°C in major population centres like Western Sydney.
— Dr Sharon Campbell, Menzies Institute for Medical Research, University of Tasmania
Relevant Sustainable Development Goals
Bushfires, floods and other extreme weather events are becoming regular occurrences in Australia, with deadly consequences. The 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires took a devastating toll, with 33 people losing their lives from the fires themselves and 417 people dying from the toxic smoke that engulfed the east coast. Health workers in hospitals treated 4,456 people for smoke-related illness at that time, putting a huge strain on the health system. As the planet heats further, these extreme weather events will become more frequent and intense, posing a huge health risk to communities across Australia.
Heat and air quality
On 13 January 2022, the coastal town of Onslow in Western Australia reached a blistering 50.7 degrees Celsius, the hottest temperature recorded in Australia. Three days earlier, EU satellite data confirmed the past seven years have been the world’s hottest on record. Australia is particularly vulnerable to extremely hot conditions, which can cause cardiac arrest, stroke, cardiovascular problems and premature death, particularly among young children and older adults. Higher temperatures increase premature births, which can lead to health issues in later life. Every Australian summer in recent memory has broken temperature records and it’s only going to get hotter.
The quality of the air that we breathe has a profound impact on our health. Bushfire smoke, greenhouse gas pollutants and pollution particulate matter damage vital organs and can lead to serious disease. Toxic chemicals from burning fossil fuels kill twice as many people worldwide as aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Climate change heightens allergic reactions and allergic diseases by altering the concentration of pollen in the atmosphere. In November 2016, a severe thunderstorm in Melbourne saw a 3000 per cent increase in asthma-related intensive care unit admissions.
Mental health and disease
Climate change deeply affects the human condition and takes a profound psychological toll. “Ecoanxiety” — poor mental health due to existential environmental threats — is increasingly common, especially among young people. Indigenous peoples are deeply affected, as are communities who rely on the natural environment for their livelihoods and cultural identity.
Survivors of extreme weather events also experience mental health issues. For every one person who experiences physical injury in climate disasters, forty people will experience psychological impacts. Suicide, aggression and mental health emergency presentations spike during heatwaves. The negative impact that rising temperatures have on the human psyche cannot be overlooked.
As temperatures increase and rainfall patterns change, mosquitos will carry diseases across the world to new geographic regions, including Australia. The 2019 Townsville floods in Queensland led to significant increases in Ross River Virus and Barmah Forest Virus. Dengue fever could infect as many as eight million Australians by 2100 if temperatures don’t stabilise. Floodwaters also breed bacteria and parasites that compromise sanitation, causing food poisoning and contaminated drinking water. Polluted floodwaters and mud left survivors of the 2022 Queensland and Lismore floods exposed to serious health risks.
What funders can do
- Support low-income households to climate-proof their homes, which may require retrofitting to increase insulation from extreme heat and cold, and switch old appliances to electric, away from polluting and expensive gas.
- Support urban planning initiatives that increase green space, maintain existing bushland and encourage urban tree planting to reduce the concrete heat island effect, making suburbs more liveable.
- Support communities near major air pollution sources to monitor air quality for high pollution days and advocate for stricter air pollution standards.
- Fund initiatives to electrify public and private transport to reduce urban air pollution and encourage active transport for a healthy lifestyle.
- Fund mental health support for communities facing climate impacts like floods, bushfires and droughts.
- Support the charitable sector to upgrade vehicle fleets to electric vehicles (EVs), which in turn stimulates a secondhand EV market, making them more affordable for Australians.
- Support healthcare workers to access time off work for climate-related events such as heatwaves or to travel to disaster zones to provide immediate care to residents.
- Ensure mental health programs include guidance on climate anxiety.
- Support healthcare workers to have their voices heard in the formulation of a national climate change and health strategy.
- Support the health sector to decarbonise, starting by assessing the carbon emissions of the healthcare provided and developing a plan to reduce emissions.
- Ask current grantees how climate change is impacting (or will impact) them or their work and how your funding may be able to support them.