Doctors seek action as reports warn of increasing climate-health risks

Two major new reports have pointed to the devastating impact on human health of climate warming, some of which is already being experienced.

Data released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found more than 9,000 people were hospitalised, and 677 people died due to extreme events in the past decade.

The World Meteorological Office (WMO) at the same time says the rapid rate of global warming, due to unprecedented human-produced carbon emissions, risks reversing decades of progress to improve human health and well-being.

The AIHW says most fatalities and hospitalisations were from exposure to extreme heat. While their destructive potential is less obvious than fires or floods, heat waves are considered the silent killer in Australia.

Extreme cold events accounted for the next highest number of deaths, followed by floods and bushfires.

But bushfires were the second-biggest direct cause of hospitalisations.

Extreme weather eventHospitalisations
2012–13 to 2021-22
2012–13 to 2021-22
Rain and storms34877

While heatwave data reported by the AIHW documents the direct impact of extreme events, they also drive more people into healthcare. Heatwaves worsen the effect of air pollution – globally the fourth biggest health risk factor for mortality. More than 3,200 Australian deaths were attributed to air pollution in 2018. They also amplify drought conditions.

Dr Richard Yin, a retired GP based in Western Australia and the deputy chair of the health NGO Doctors for the Environment Australia says urgent action is needed.

“We’re clear that this is an urgent and immediate threat that’s happening now,” Yin says.

“The nature of the impacts will come not in a linear fashion, but something a bit more abrupt and a bit more exponential.

“I don’t know if Australia or anywhere in the world is actually fully prepared for all the impacts and understanding how slow government response is, I think we’re way behind where we need to be in the context of preparing the country for climate change impacts in Australia.”

WMO warns of health

The AIHW’s data drop comes as the WMO warns of the impact climate change will have on global health services and human wellbeing.

In its State of Climate Services Health report, the WMO says the rapid rate of global warming due to unprecedented human-produced carbon emissions risks undermining key health measures and systems around the planet, “thereby threatening to reverse decades of progress to promote human health and well-being”.

In a joint statement, the heads of the WMO and World Health Organization emphasised collaborative initiatives between governments, institutions and communities as crucial to mitigating the impacts of climate change on health systems.

Climate information, they say, will help improve prevention strategies and preparedness to protect lives from hazardous events. This includes enhancing awareness of disease transmission mechanisms, seasonal risks (such as floods and fires), climate and risk trends and understanding the benefits of health interventions.

Assessments conducted by the WMO found the ability to deliver climate and weather services to support health outcomes was highest among large and developed economies, particularly those in North America, parts of Europe, East and South Asia.

“More must be done to prepare the health community for future shocks and pressures.”

Yin supports efforts to improve information for the public, both in Australia and globally. He says that decarbonisation and shifting Australia’s economy towards one based on renewables will help reduce the direct and indirect financial burden on Australia’s health system.

He’s also alarmed by issues that are less often described as consequences of climate events. In Australia, he points to the risk of social and mental health impacts emerging from natural disasters and hazards as issues of concern.

“After these disasters, we know there are profound social and mental health impacts,” Yin says.

“What’s not understood is what actually has to happen on the ground with communities… these [events] have a really profound impact on communities and the wellbeing of communities.

“The key message from us is that we must urgently mitigate [climate effects] because some of these impacts will be difficult to adapt to, or prepare for.”

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