Climate change: Growing threat to Australia’s health

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Substantial national action is urgently required to address the mounting risks to human health in Australia due to climate change, according to researchers from Monash University and partner institutions of the 2019 MJA-Lancet Countdown report.

The report, published today in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), found that although there’s been some progress in renewable energy generation, including substantial employment increases in the sector, and at state and local government levels, there continues to be no engagement on health and climate change at a federal level.

Professor Tony Capon, Director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and senior author of the report, said: “Health impacts of climate change include heat illness, asthma, heart disease, injuries, mosquito-borne diseases and diarrhoea. Climate change has even been linked to depression.

“The bushfires currently devastating the nation’s eastern seaboard signal the need for urgent action,” he said.

“Human health will improve as we pursue pathways to net zero emissions. Cleaner air, healthier diets and safer, more walkable cities will benefit our physical and mental health, and yield increases in worker productivity and savings in healthcare costs,” Professor Capon added.

KEY FINDINGS

  • A new report by researchers from Monash University and partner institutions locally and abroad outlines extensive health damage from climate change, and sets out the lifelong consequences of rising temperatures for a child born today should the world follow a business-as-usual pathway.
  • As temperatures rise, infants will be vulnerable to the burden of malnutrition and rising food prices – the average yield potential of wheat, the major winter crop in Australia, has declined five per cent since the 1960s.
  • Children will be among those to most suffer from the rise in infectious diseases – 2018 was the second-most climatically suitable year on record for the spread of bacteria that cause much of diarrhoeal disease and wound infection globally.
  • Throughout adolescence, the impact of air pollution will worsen – with Australia accounting for about a third of the world’s coal trade, the carbon intensity of Australia’s primary energy supply is the highest of high-income countries, with coal accounting for about 65 per cent of electricity generation.
  • Dangerous levels of outdoor fine-particulate air pollution (PM2.5) contributed to 2800 premature deaths (two per cent of all deaths) in Australia in 2016.
  • Extreme weather events will intensify into adulthood – maximum summer temperatures in Australia are 1.66°C warmer than 20 years ago, with the intensity of heatwaves rising by a third, increasing the dangers to human health, and a potential 1.35 million additional hours of work lost due to extreme heat in 2018 compared to 2000.
  • Pursuing the Paris Agreement pathway to limit warming to well below 2°C could allow a child born today to grow up in a world that reaches net zero emissions by their 31st birthday, and secure a healthier future for coming generations

The report examined progress on climate change and human health in Australia, tracked across 31 indicators divided into five broad sections: climate change impacts, exposures and vulnerability; adaptation, planning and resilience for health; mitigation actions and health co-benefits; finance and economics; and public and political engagement.

A number of new indicators were introduced this year, including one focused on wildfire exposure, and another on engagement in health and climate change in the corporate sector.

Associate Professor Yuming Guo from the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, who led section one of the report focusing on climate change impacts, exposures and vulnerability, said increases in heat continue to present a leading source of climate change-related health risk in Australia, and this trend is likely to continue.

“Despite uncertainties created by the large variability in daily and seasonal temperatures, there’s been a striking upward trend in the rate of increase in maximum temperatures over the past two decades.

“Large increases in heatwave intensity are also evident over the same period, with consequent risks for health, particularly among people experiencing underlying vulnerability and disadvantage,” said Associate Professor Guo.

“Additionally, hot years in terms of both maximum and minimum annual temperatures continued to be associated with higher suicide rates.

“We’ve found little evidence to suggest that Australia is acting effectively to mitigate these multiple heat-related risks for physical and mental health. This is particularly concerning in the context of a growing and ageing population,” he said.

Australia was the only country to produce its own national Countdown assessment report in 2018. It found that overall, Australia is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on health, and that policy inaction in this regard threatens Australian lives. The current report presents the first annual update of this assessment tracking Australia’s engagement with, and progress on, this vitally important issue, and found that Australia performed poorly across many of the indicators in comparison to other developed countries.

The report’s authors have called for the health impacts of climate change to be a priority on the agenda at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December.

The MJA-Lancet Countdown will continue annual assessments until 2030.

The global report can be found here and the Australia-focused chapter is published in the MJA.

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