A DECADE ago, a new genre of speculative fiction began to be featured at writers’ festivals: “cli-fi”, dystopic stories set against a backdrop of catastrophic climate change.

More recently, a novelist told me the term was no longer useful: “All fiction is climate fiction now,” they said.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released an update to its 2014 report on the impact of climate change. It leaves no doubt the massive changes we have wrought on our planet are starting to move out of the realm of speculation into reality.

“It is unequivocal that climate change has already disrupted human and natural systems,” the report says.

“Climate-related illnesses, premature deaths, malnutrition in all its forms, and threats to mental health and wellbeing are increasing.”

The list of present and future threats is sobering. It’s not just heat stress, but also vector-borne disease, gastrointestinal illness from contaminated water after flooding, food-borne illness due to proliferation of harmful bacteria, and respiratory illness aggravated by bushfire smoke. Extreme weather events, such as bushfires or floods, are followed by increased rates of mental illness.

On top of that, climate variability is already contributing to food insecurity and, as a result, malnutrition.

All of these effects are felt most deeply in those countries that have the least resources to address them. The IPCC report also notes that, even in wealthy countries, there is a disproportionate impact on Indigenous people.

Prevention is always better than cure but, sadly, the report makes clear some of the future impact is now locked in. It’s too late to completely avoid the cascade of crises that awaits us, and they’ll no doubt be compounded by all the other environmental threats faced by our overcrowded planet.

So, alongside an ongoing focus on reducing carbon emissions, we need a more concerted effort to find new ways to live in the radically transformed world that awaits us.

Unfortunately, progress has been slow on adaptation strategies to protect food supply, water, inhabited areas, and of course health.

“Despite acknowledgment of the importance of health adaptation as a key component, action has been slow,” the report notes.

There’s a lot of work to do, and many of the strategies will require broader thinking. Yes, we need heat action plans, including early warning and response systems for extreme conditions, but we also need fundamental changes in urban planning and design to help keep heat at a manageable level in our cities.

The authors of the IPCC report believe lessons can be learnt from the experience of COVID-19.

“The pandemic underscores the interconnected and compound nature of risks, vulnerabilities, and responses to emergencies that are simultaneously local and global,” they write.

It has also shown us how hard it is to reach and implement international agreements even, or perhaps especially, in the context of an emergency.

The pandemic, the report says, “exposed systemic weaknesses, at community, national, and international levels in the ability of societies to anticipate and respond to global risks”.

“Individuals, households, sub-national and national entities, and international organizations have generally delayed responses or denied the pandemic’s severity before responding at the scale and urgency required; a pattern that resembles international action on climate change.”

Australians resoundingly voted for action on climate change at the recent federal election. Let’s hope that means an end to the ideological warfare that has stymied any real action for over a decade.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.

Subscribe to the free InSight+ weekly newsletter here. It is available to all readers, not just registered medical practitioners.

If you would like to submit an article for consideration, send a Word version to mjainsight-editor@ampco.com.au.


Seeking help for our mental health problems endangers our careers
  • Agree (36%, 67 Votes)
  • Strongly agree (32%, 59 Votes)
  • Disagree (11%, 21 Votes)
  • Neutral (11%, 20 Votes)
  • Strongly disagree (9%, 17 Votes)

Total Voters: 184

Loading ... Loading ...

4 thoughts on “Climate reality: taking the “fi” out of “cli-fi”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This article refers to the harmful physical and mental health effects of floods & bushfires .

    But these have all occurred worldwide forever . There isn’t evidence that these are any more severe or common in the last 40 years . .The weather is always changing

    . This is supposedly a scientific medical journal .I don’t see any evidence listed to support this author’s contentions .We wouldn’t accept a company or author saying “ just trust me our drug works “ , So neither should we accept the climate change alarmism that we are constantly fed .

    Climate change should not be like a religion that cannot be questioned . The science is never settled on any scientific topic .All models used are based on a range of assumptions that are flawed . They can’t even tell us the weather in 2 days let alone accurately predict conditions years in the future.

  2. Ian Hargreaves says:

    Having returned yesterday from an international surgical conference in London (most of the attendees flew in), the UK is abandoning its ambitious climate change policies. They face the reality that power prices have tripled on average, and poor people may freeze to death in their homes, unable to afford heating costs this winter. The ubiquitous wind farms are not enough, and another 8 nuclear reactors are proposed.

    The big ‘sticker shock’ last week was petrol breaking the 2 pounds/litre mark, forcing the government to decrease its fuel excise.

    It will be interesting to see if the Australian politicians have the resolve to tell laid-off coal miners and CFMMEU members to buy a Tesla, when petrol here hits $4/L.

  3. Rod says:

    Thanks Jane I am always intrigued by the notion of Australians wanting and voting for action on climate change as our capacity to affect global climate by any action here in Australia is effectively zero. My understanding is we produce around 1.3% of global emissions in this country (and falling) however the annual growth of global emissions currently exceeds Australia’s contribution several fold and is projected to rise further. Australia could literally shut down tomorrow and make no measurable difference to global emissions or climate change. Further we could stop exporting our coal which is generally regarded as “clean burning” compared to the vast quantities of cheap “dirty coal” that would take its place in the blink of an eye thus exacerbating global emissions. We could also stop exporting LNG but this would simply delay transition away from coal burning power generation to cleaner gas in our customer countries. None of this is regularly reported meaning that many Australians actually believe that what we do here can and will make a real difference. None of this means we should do nothing. But we must avoid pointless acts of economic self harm in the process – a good health care system is very expensive , gas and coal exports fund it.
    Human induced climate change is real and potentially threatens the survival of the planet. Only international action involving the big emitters will make a difference , in the mean time let us not deceive ourselves that we can vote for “action on climate change” and actually produce it , no matter what our politicians may promise or who we have in office.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps ask the Swedes how they would have felt being locked into an international pandemic response plan.
    Then you’ll have some understanding as to why an international climate response plan remains in the realm of fantasy fiction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *