A SUBSTANTIAL and growing body of scientific evidence is highlighting that the public health risks posed by climate change represent a health emergency. The international medical journal The Lancet has explicitly stated that without urgent action on climate change, the conditions that underpin the health and wellbeing of the human population will be greatly compromised in the coming decades, undermining the development and global health gains of the previous half century.

A sobering vision, but one that is avoidable through a shared global effort. In Canberra on 22 June 2017, a large coalition of leading health organisations launched a Framework for a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Well-being for Australia, the first of its kind to be launched globally. The launch of this framework is a crucial step towards assisting Australia in meeting its duty of care in protecting the health and wellbeing of the Australian community, as well as meeting its international climate and health obligations.

Compared with countries that are already acting to mitigate climate change impacts, the current lack of priority afforded to human health in national mitigation and adaptation strategies is not only putting the Australian community at unacceptable and avoidable risk, but also putting Australia at an economic disadvantage. Australia is recognised as one of the developed nations most vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change, and as such, the health and social costs of climate change in Australia are significant. The scale of these costs serves as further emphasis of the need to implement a national climate and health strategy, as put forward in the framework.

For example:

Human health has not yet been afforded sufficient priority in Australia’s climate change mitigation and adaptation policies and strategies. Although there are examples of policies targeting climate change and health impacts at the state, territory and local level, this is occurring in the absence of an overarching policy directive from the federal government. Properly addressing these impacts requires a coordinated national effort, led by the federal government, in fostering a whole-of-government approach and cross-portfolio action involving health, energy and climate and environment portfolios working collaboratively to protect the health and wellbeing of present and future generations, and to ensure that the health cobenefits of climate change action are realised.

A nationwide consultation with health stakeholders in 2016 revealed serious concerns at the current lack of national leadership to deal with the serious and growing public health risks posed by climate change in Australia. This consultation, which included a national survey of health stakeholders, and online discussion forum and a health leaders’ roundtable, also revealed near-universal support (98%) for the development of a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Well-being. There is a clear expectation among the Australian health sector that the Commonwealth Government provides leadership and that a national public policy framework is required to coordinate the needed action across government portfolios and at all levels of government.

In a positive display of cross-parliamentary support, the launch of the framework was cohosted by Coalition Minister for Aged Care and Indigenous Health, Ken Wyatt, along with Shadow Minister for Health, Catherine King, and Greens leader and health spokesperson, Senator Richard Di Natale.

A recent global survey of national climate and health plans found that Australia is lagging behind comparable countries when it comes to protecting and preparing its community and health sector for the health consequences associated with climate change. Driven by increasing recognition of the significant cobenefits for health available through mitigation and adaptation policies, there is growing global momentum in policy development around the health impacts of climate change.

For example:

  • the European Union has a guiding framework for member states on protecting the health of their communities in an environment increasingly shaped by climate change, and several EU members have identified health as a priority area in national climate adaptation strategies;
  • the United Kingdom has implemented a Sustainable Development Strategy for the National Health Service, which includes both mitigation and adaptation strategies, with the objective of reducing the environmental impact of the health sector, building capacity to respond to the health impacts of climate change and extreme weather events, and improving the sector’s economic, social and environmental sustainability; and
  • China and India together constitute 36% of the world’s population, and both have undergone rapid urbanisation over the past few decades. To date, growth in industrial capacity has been largely fuelled by coal-fired electricity generation and resulted in severe air and water pollution, increased food insecurity and vulnerability to the spread of infectious diseases. Both countries have recently taken significant policy steps to move away from use of fossil fuels to protect the health of their citizens.

Given the potentially large health cobenefits available through policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in particular, there is growing evidence that climate change action as outlined in the framework should not be viewed as a cost, but rather as an investment in an opportunity to reduce the social and economic burden of ill health.

In addition to the obvious national interest, as a signatory to the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Australia is also obligated to consider citizens’ “right to health” in the context of climate policy, and to ensure that the health benefits from climate mitigation are reflected in climate policy decisions.

The framework has been designed as a roadmap to guide government policy and decision making processes in dealing with climate change and health risks and in fulfilling its international obligations under the Paris Agreement. The framework will also support Australia in reporting against the global climate and health indicators developed for the Lancet Countdown. This annual evaluation will report on the progress of nations in managing the health impacts of climate change, with the first report due in November 2017.

The development of the framework has involved collaboration between a large network of health experts, academics, policymakers and bureaucrats, including the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, the Public Health Association Australia and the Climate and Health Alliance. The collaborative process revealed seven key areas of policy action designed to address current gaps in federal policy which have implications for public health. Some of these include policies to reduce air pollution, building the resilience of health and emergency services and communities to climate-related health threats, greening hospitals and developing dedicated funding streams for climate and health research.

The framework was launched at an event at Parliament House in Canberra on 22 June 2017. It is endorsed by over 30 major health and medical groups, as well as by Nobel Laureate for Medicine Professor Peter Doherty, who wrote in the foreword:

“Without urgent action on climate change, the conditions that underpin the health and well-being of the human population will be greatly diminished in coming decades, and may only be available to a small number of people living in a few parts of the planet by the end of this century… The adoption and implementation of this Framework provides the opportunity for the Australian Government to become world leaders in health and climate change policy. Together with effective mitigation policies, Australia can make a contribution to the global effort of tackling global warming, while reaping immediate and local benefits for its citizens in the near term.”

Fiona Armstrong is the founder and executive director of the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA) and the architect of the Our Climate Our Health campaign for a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Well-being for Australia. 

Nick Horsburgh is the research and policy lead for CAHA and recently completed the Master of Environment at the University of Melbourne.

Vanora Mulvenna is a member of CAHA’s Research and Policy Subcommittee and a principal project coordinator at the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.


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10 thoughts on “Health and climate change: time to lead

  1. Alistair Woodward says:

    I was one of those who laboured on the 5th assessment report for the IPCC. It was the most rigorously peer-reviewed document I have ever contributed to. Thousands of comments, all of which we had to respond to. There was a comprehensive outline of the health chapter published in the Lancet – those who are interested in the topic, both the process which the IPCC follows, and the conclusions of the assessment, might find this a useful resource. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2814%2960576-6/fulltext

  2. Anonymous says:

    Great to see this idealistic yet naive advocacy on the role of health care providers in reducing risks to health from climate change.

    It becomes important at some stage to accept that all attempts – even globally – to reduce emissions will come to nought it terms of any useful effect in reducing atmospheric CO2 and temperature. It is not possible to mandate a reduction in energy consumption globally that would have any effect (unless perhaps the misanthropists wish to enact a Malthusian-inspired extermination of 4/5 of the world’s population).

    That being the case, adaptation is the job at hand. Economies crippled by command-style tinkering with CO2 levels by renewable energy subsidies and forced fossil-fuel power generation closures will be far less well-placed to spend the necessary (and by contrast, useful) amounts on adaptation and research into renewable sources that are finally cost-effective.

    Motherhood statements on the jobs growth potential of renewables seemingly take no account of job losses from both traditional power generation closures, and the industry closures that are dependent on that cheap energy generation that then migrate overseas.

    And finally, as a footnote, reducing emissions is fine, but please don’t conflate CO2 with other pollutants (‘soot’) in discussing health effects: there is exactly zero evidence of ill effects to personal health from inhaling atmospheric CO2.

  3. Rosalie Schultz says:

    Great to see this powerful and insightful contribution on the role of health care providers in reducing risks to health from climate change. Our responsibilities to both reduce emissions and promote effective adaptation is becoming clearer and more important.

    The fact that there are direct health benefits from reducing emissions makes considering climate change in our decisions even more important: less air pollution and more employment opportunities as we transition to renewable energy; greater physical activity through active transport, with less road trauma and less traffic congestion; healthier diets through eating less processed foods.

    Please keep us informed as this work progresses.

  4. Richard Heller says:

    Such a shame to see uninformed comment in the face of so much clear evidence. Your correspondents might like to take the time to review the evidence – if you go to http://ooc.peoples-uni.org/ you can enrol in a free open course on Climate Change and Public Health where you will be able to work through the evidence at your own pace.

  5. Dr. ARC says:

    There is absolutely no proof that global warming exists and science can be twisted to prove whatever you want the answer to be. The reason that doctors have an opinion is because they are scientifically based and orientated.
    Perhaps MJA Insight should conduct a poll on what doctors really believe to be the facts about global warming and whether CO2 really does make any difference.

  6. Anonymous says:

    ‘The science is clear about climate change’: is that a way of saying ‘settled’ without appearing anti-scientific?
    Hmm. Trust the evidence.
    A parochial and obliquely relevant paper cited to support climate action that includes terrorism in its data mix.
    Long bow?
    And am keen to see the extent of contingency planning to cover all these eventualities (and who is paying).

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for the above opinions. Unfortunately they are the opinions from last century. The science is clear about climate change. It is now time to take it seriously and work out some positive solutions. Below is some further evidence highlighting mistakes in the above comments:
    Australasian disasters of national significance:
    An epidemiological analysis, 1900–2012, Emergency Medicine Australasia (2015) 27, 132–138

    The real question is why people (including doctors) stubbornly refuse to accept the science. I suppose it goes against their ideologies.

  8. Dr Roger BURGESS Radiologist says:

    Few, if any of Tim Flannery’s dire climate change predictions have ever come to pass. Drastic climate change proponents have suddenly run out of credibility. When oh when fellas are we going to reach your tipping point(s)?Arrant waffle! Australia’s contribution to the emissions of the world is only 1.4%, so those 3 intent-looking chappies who wrote this crass alarmist article, sure have their work cut out to effect any meaningful change in the climate! Give us a break, the alarmists’ cause is disintegrating all around the world, but no-one is game enough to stand up and call a halt to all this rubbish. Time will clearly show that Rudd’s “greatest moral challenge…of our generation” has no substance. Time will tell, repeat, time will tell and there are already cracks appearing in their predictions. There is, however, considerable, measurable science about a mini ICE AGE appearing later this century where we will be skating on the Thames once again. Indeed we should be burning more fossil fuel etc etc in an attempt to ameliorate its effects. Anyone for ice hockey on the Yarra?

  9. Dr. ARC says:

    I agree totally with the thoughts of anonymous above.
    I am also sick and tired of so called pundits who keep pontificating the evils of global warming when it just isn’t happening or if it is, it is miniscule and hardly measurable. In some cold places on the planet in Victoria and in England barring the occasional heatwave caused by climatic conditions and not by CO2 emission, those on low incomes have to decide whether to eat or keep themselves warm, because they can’t do both. Similarly, those on low incomes cannot always afford to pay for their medications and therefore they don’t take them.
    It would be better that the government assists those in need rather than spend billions on attempting to control the uncontrollable.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Again? Really? So soon?

    And will you please stop making stuff up?

    Fact #1. Extreme weather events are not attributable to climate change and are actually fewer in recent years
    Fact#2. China and India are NOT moving away from fossil-fuel based energy supply but are building more of these power stations, and together are expected to make up more than 50% of global emissions of CO2 by 2050
    Fact#3. There are more deaths attributable to extreme cold than to extreme heat, and this will increase as fuel cost-distorting programs to address global warming deprive the poor and elderly of winter heating

    There seems a great focus on future generations but a frank misanthropy when it comes to those currently alive: rather curious for medicos.

    Please focus on realistic adaptation: there are no serious options available to blunt this system change in the climate (even with nuclear).

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