Health and climate change: Australia out on a limb

Health and climate change: Australia out on a limb

Australia has no national plan to address health impacts of climate change, despite ongoing calls for a national climate-health strategy, according to a detailed national assessment of health and climate change.

Lead author of the 2021 Medical Journal of Australia–Lancet Countdown on health and climate change in Australia, Macquarie University's Associate Professor Paul Beggs, said ‘a major conclusion of the report is that the continued absence of a national health and climate change adaptation plan is a glaring gap in Australia’s preparedness, and continues to put the health and lives of Australians at risk.’

‘Although local, state and territory governments are now starting to take action to adapt to the impacts of climate change, there is a stark contrast between Australia’s world-leading COVID-19 response and its world-lagging climate change response,’ said Professor Tony Capon, Director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and one of the authors of the MJALancet Countdown report.

‘As COP26 approaches in November, we urge the federal government to act immediately to drastically reduce Australia’s emissions and commence critical preparations for the inevitable health impacts of locked-in climate change. Australia’s Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement is world-lagging, inadequate, and does not include specific measures to protect Australians’ health.’

Professor Kathryn Bowen, Deputy Director of Melbourne Climate Futures at the University of Melbourne and a lead author of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II says, ‘the MJA-Lancet Countdown on health and climate change in Australia has been pivotal in tracking this vital issue since 2018 and the 2021 report published today should be at the forefront of Australia’s leaders’ minds as they develop climate policy.’

The 2021 MJA-Lancet Countdown report, released today, says that Australians are increasingly exposed, and vulnerable, to rising temperatures from climate change. This is already affecting health and worker productivity.

In 2019, the equivalent of nearly 8,000 workdays was lost across Australia due to heat exposure. Annual work hours lost due to heat have increased significantly over the past 30 years. ‘Heat stress can force workers in exposed occupations to either slow down or stop work altogether on particularly hot days,’ said Professor Capon.

Climate change also threatens Australia’s annual ‘summer of sport’ by increasing the risk of heat-related illness associated with physical activity. Across Australia, weather conditions threaten summer sports including cricket and tennis. Of eight cities analysed, six had a greater number of days with activities likely to be suspended, with Sydney and Alice Springs showing the greatest increases.

‘Climate change also disproportionately threatens Indigenous Australians’ wellbeing in multiple and complex ways,’ says the MJA-Lancet Countdown report. ‘Providing sustainable and long-term funding and support to Indigenous Australians is a vital policy measure in the era of climate change.’

The health system itself also has a role to play in combating climate change. In Australia, healthcare accounts for more than 5 percent of the nation’s annual carbon emissions. COVID-19 highlights the vulnerability of our heath sector. There will be additional pressure from a warming climate. The report recommends a target of net-zero emissions healthcare be established by 2040.

Nineteen health and climate researchers from Australia’s leading universities combined to produce the 2021 national report.

The MJA–Lancet Countdown on health and climate change in Australia has released national assessments annually since 2018. The assessments examine climate change impacts, exposures and vulnerability; adaptation, planning and resilience for health; mitigation actions and health co-benefits; economics and finance; and public and political engagement.

The full report is available at https://www.mja.com.au/

DOI: 10.5694/mja2.51302

Partners

The 2021 MJA-Lancet Countdown on health and climate change in Australia was a collaboration between Monash University, The University of Melbourne, Macquarie University, Queensland University of Technology, The University of New South Wales, The University of Sydney, University College London, University of Tasmania, Bureau of Meteorology, Australian College of Nursing, Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association, Australian Medical Association, Australian Medical Students’ Association, Public Health Association of Australia, and The Royal Australasian College of Physicians.