Determining climate change impact important for a disaster-fatigued population

The burden placed upon healthcare systems by COVID-19 might provide a glimpse into a future living with climate change, says one of Australia’s leading emergency physicians.

As Australia deals with further flooding events this week on the back of an unusual, but not unprecedented third consecutive La Niña in the spring and summer of 2022/23, the public’s capacity for more natural disasters may well be stretched.

It’s why Professor George Braitberg, writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, is calling for greater urgency in defining the hazard of a climate emergency, so that adequate adaptation and mitigation strategies can be implemented.

Braitberg has four decades of clinical experience in emergency medicine and is the director of emergency medicine research at Austin Health.

In his other role as deputy head of the critical care department at the University of Melbourne’s medical school, he is helping finalise a new master’s program in disaster and terror medicine.

His perspective offered to the MJA, says the lack of a clear climate emergency definition—even though some sub-national authorities have declared one—makes preparing appropriate actions to address the problem difficult.

“We need to have a clear definition of what that [climate] hazard is so we can then have the policies, procedures and actions against it, directed against it, so we can actually mitigate its impact,” Braitberg tells Cosmos.

“We need to be on board as a global community in terms of understanding and defining climate change and the climate emergencies that result from it, and to make sure that once we have that definition, that we develop global policies that address it and reduce the risk to ourselves and future generations.”

COVID-19 provides a glimpse into the climate health burden

It’s difficult to apportion a single natural event to climate change.

Instead, scientists predict and observe increases in the frequency and intensity of natural hazards such as wildfires, droughts, cyclones and flooding events, as well as increased temperatures.

These trends are beginning to emerge more often. In 2022, the world has seen records tumble with widespread northern hemisphere heatwaves contrasted with tumbling wet weather records in the south: Sydney has just smashed its annual rainfall record—with two-and-a-half months to spare—while major flooding has returned to in-land New South Wales.

And Australia’s long-range forecast today released by the weather bureau predicts above average tropical cyclone events, widespread flooding for northern and eastern Australia, and elevated grassfire and prolonged heatwave risk for the continent’s southern regions.

Although climate change has often been considered a problem for the environment, the cascading effects on human health—whether through disaster impact or acute illnesses like heat stress—have moved into the spotlight in recent years.

Braitberg expects the connection between increased climate-influenced events and human health will continue to be realised as pressure increases on global healthcare systems trying to recover from the pandemic.

“Through the last three years of COVID-19, we’ve seen the impact of constant, if you like, chronic disaster, on the health care system. It’s stretched it, healthcare workers are fatigued, it’s resulted in changes to access to care that we otherwise wouldn’t have considered five years ago,” Braitberg says.

“And, of course, that’s played out much more across the lower socio-economic nations where the disparity between those that have access, to those who don’t have access [to heath care], continues to grow.

“There is a current, as well as future, health burden, that will grow as a result of not facing the realistic challenge that we have from climate change.”

At next month’s COP27 climate conference in Egypt, many nations are required to bring new carbon emissions reduction targets—known as ‘nationally determined contributions’—to the table.

Australia is, so far, one of only 19 nations to have updated its NDC – it’s newly legislated target to reduce carbon emissions by 43% on 2005 levels by the end of this decade.

Conventions like COP27 represent a chance for governments to coordinate and define the risks and consequences of a climate emergency. But in doing so, these nations also need to be accountable, and bring reduction targets that pass the scientific muster.

That’s because there’s about three years left for the world to hit reverse gear on the amount of carbon it releases into the atmosphere, if there’s to be any hope of keeping global temperature increase to below 1.5 degrees.

“Regardless of what people and sceptics think about the cause of climate change, I can guarantee the human species is the only species that can do anything about it,” Braitberg says.

“Accepting that accountability, I think, at a government and national level and international level is part of that.”

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