Climate change and public health
Australia is predicted to face significant public health challenges as a direct result of climate change. The Australian Medical Journal officially declared climate change a health emergency in September 2019, citing “clear scientific evidence indicating severe impacts for our patients and communities now and into the future”.
Public health policy in Australia will play an integral role in minimising the impact of climate change on human health. But considering the complexity and far-reaching impacts of climate change, this will require an unprecedented level of expertise among healthcare leaders.
It’s crucial that public health policies be developed with a sound understanding of climate change and health, so Australia’s public healthcare system is prepared for what lies ahead.
Identifying the most urgent health issues related to climate change and public health is a crucial step in future-proofing Australia’s healthcare system. This will allow for the development of appropriate policies so the adverse health impacts of climate change can be minimised as much as possible.
In a report on the impacts of changes in the environment, The Australian Academy of Science highlighted the following areas of concern related to climate change and health:
- Temperature-related mortality rates – Heatwaves have always posed a threat to public health in Australia, but their growing intensity and frequency have made them more dangerous in recent years. A scientific study found a consistent and significant increase in mortalities during heatwaves in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne between the years 1988 and 2009, indicating the increasingly dangerous nature of extreme temperatures.
- Infectious diseases – Warmer temperatures may lead to an increase in diseases spread via water and food, such as gastroenteritis and dengue fever. Climate change has the potential to increase infection rates as the organisms that cause these diseases tend to live longer in warmer temperatures.
- Emotional trauma – In a study on the emotional costs of living with climate change, the Climate Institute revealed that as many as one in five people will experience extreme stress following a severe weather event.
This is just a small sample of the most pressing health issues linked to climate change in Australia. Given their potential to have a significant impact on the general public’s health and wellbeing, creating policies to address these issues will be a complicated process involving multiple health departments at local, state and federal levels.
Despite the difficulties associated with developing effective public health policies in response to climate change, it’s still possible to find small instances of progress.
Australia’s Public Health Policy Response
After years of highly charged political debate surrounding climate change, the Australian Government introduced measures to reduce carbon emissions in the form of several initiatives. For example, the Emissions Reduction Fund provides positive incentives for Australians to reduce their emissions and energy costs. Additionally, the Emissions Reduction Target is designed to encourage sustainable growth in both small and large-scale renewable technologies.
Although not directly related to public health, these policies will help reduce the pressure on health services by minimising the impacts of climate change. In terms of climate change policies related specifically to public health, more progress can be seen at a state level. For example:
- The Queensland Government has developed a Human Health and Wellbeing Climate Change Adaption Plan.
- NSW Health has taken steps to educate the public on how climate change can affect health.
- In Victoria, the Department of Health and Human Services has prepared a pilot health and human services climate change adaptation action plan as the first step in a long-term process of building resilience to climate change.
The introduction of these policies indicates that climate change is being taken increasingly seriously as a public health issue. However, research shows that more significant changes will need to occur for the impact of climate change to be addressed more thoroughly.
In 2019, international medical journal the Lancet published its Countdown report, found that the Australian government’s inaction on health and climate change has put the public at significant risk of illness through heat, fire and extreme weather events.
So, what’s preventing public health policies in Australia from meeting the challenges of climate change?
Obstacles to Change
One of the greatest barriers to the development of public health policies is a lack of effective leadership in healthcare. To prepare for the rise of climate-related illnesses and injuries, healthcare professionals will need to expand their knowledge of the impact of climate change on human health and their policy development skills.
Only further education can help healthcare leaders attain this knowledge. The World Health Organisation has emphasised the important role health professionals can play in preparing healthcare systems for climate change, stating that “Health professionals can use their knowledge and authority to inform and influence action in key national and international processes that guide policy and resources for work on climate change”.
Without further investment in education, public health policies in Australia won’t be prepared to face a future shaped by climate change.
Monash University’s 100% online Master of Public Health can advance your healthcare leadership skills, giving you the skills and knowledge needed to prepare the public healthcare system for the future.