Australia’s top health researchers highlight threat of climate change

Climate change is one of the greatest threats to human health and wellbeing in the 21st century, according to the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences (AAHMS).

“A growing body of scientific evidence demonstrates unequivocally the risks of a warming climate, revealing potentially devastating health impacts on the people of Australia, our region, and the world,” they say.

Their statement comes on World Health Day 2022, which has the theme of “Our planet, our health”. 

“It is no longer time for healthcare as usual,” says Warwick Anderson, co-chair of the AAHMS Climate Change and Health Steering Committee. “Our health and wellbeing are under immediate threat.”

The statement outlines key priorities for the health and medical research sector, which include: promoting recognition of the health impacts of climate change; delivering research that advances knowledge of these impacts and how to manage them; and collaborating with First Nations communities and experts to amplify First Nations voices and learn from Indigenous knowledge.

The AAHMS spent two years reviewing evidence and facilitating expert discussions on the impacts of climate change on health.

Health impacts of climate change concept sun in an orange smokey sky during a heatwave
Smoke haze from bushfires in Perth, Western Australia. Credit: Jennifer A Smith / Moment / Getty Images.

“Climate change and its associated pressures have a huge impact on human health,” explains Fran Baum, co-chair of the AAHMS Climate Change and Health Steering Committee.

She points to the negative health impacts of extreme weather events such as floods and heatwaves, the spread of diseases such as Japanese encephalitis to new regions, and the loss of homes to rising sea levels – and that’s just the start.

“The WHO [World Health Organization] says that 13 people die every minute around the world from conditions related to air pollution, like lung cancer, strokes and heart disease – and the pollution is essentially from fossil fuels,” says Baum.

“And of course, all these pressures have a mental health impact on people too.”

Baum, an expert in the social and commercial determinants of health, highlights how the risks of climate change fall disproportionately on people and countries who are already less advantaged.

“Many old people living in poverty will say, ‘I can’t afford to turn the heating on in winter or the air conditioning on in summer’, and we know that those extreme temperatures have an impact on people, particularly if they have an existing chronic disease.”

More effort is needed, she says, to make buffers against climate change impacts, such as insulation and solar panels, available to all, regardless of income.

Health impacts of climate change concept a man installing insulation in a roof
Making technology like home insulation and solar panels more accessible would reduce inequities surrounding the health risks of climate change. Credit: The Good Brigade / DigitalVision / Getty Images.

The AAHMS statement also stresses the need to make healthcare itself more environmentally sustainable. According to the statement, Australia’s healthcare system is responsible for about 7% of the country’s total carbon emissions, mostly stemming from hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) has already set a target to achieve a net zero health system by 2040, and created a role of chief sustainability officer to support this goal.

“It’s a bit more complicated in Australia because of the states,” says Baum. “We need agreements between the federal and the state [governments], giving incentives to hospitals to help them to reduce their carbon emissions.”

Strategies could include the introduction of electric cars, installing solar power, and high environmental standards for new healthcare buildings. Baum also highlights the need for investment in positions, similar to the NHS chief sustainability officer, who can take responsibility for leading and implementing these strategies across the sector.

Altogether, changes in both attitude and action will be needed to meet the challenges of climate change.  

Health impacts of climate change concept cars driving on a flooded road in melbourne cbd
Flooding due to heavy rains in Melbourne’s CBD. Credit: Nigel Killeen / Moment / Getty Images.

“It’s really important to care for people, obviously, but we also have to care for the planet and for future generations,” says Baum.   

“What good is it to cure people and send them back into an increasingly unsafe environment? That’s what we’re doing at the moment.”

“A well-defined, quick, and staged path to a net-zero world is needed to ensure the health and wellbeing of all Australians,” says Ingrid Scheffer, president of the AAHMS.

“The Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences is committed to supporting this endeavour, and this statement outlines specific steps we will take to ensure we are playing our part.”

“We know what measures will mitigate and alleviate climate change,” Baum says. “Can we imagine in 20 years’ time, where we’re building buildings that are more in keeping with our environment; where we have lots and lots of jobs in renewable energy and the restoration of environments; where individuals are much healthier … I think we need to offer people this vision of a much better society.” 

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