By focussing on the health impacts of climate change, health professionals can play a vital role in framing the need for climate actions in a way that is more personally meaningful and less controversial for the public and policy makers.

In December 2023, on the first ever Health Day at the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 148 countries (including Australia) signed the COP28 UAE Declaration on climate and health. This is an important milestone indicating the widespread acknowledgement that climate change is a health crisis.

Despite being a high income country with advanced health and emergency management systems, Australia is highly vulnerable to impacts, including the health impacts of climate change. A recent report published in The Lancet Regional Health – Western Pacific in November 2023, written by 30 leading experts in climate change and health research across 19 institutes in Australia, provided the most up-to-date summary of Australia’s key climate-related threats and their health impacts, as detailed below.

What can health professionals do about climate change? - Featured Image
Australia is highly vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change (Tongra239/Shutterstock).

Australia’s key climate-related threats and their health impacts

Heatwaves have been identified as a major threat to human health. From 2000 to 2022, most Australian communities experienced at least 10 days of heatwave conditions per year, and the number of heatwave days was often higher than 15 days per year in Queensland and Northern Territory communities. Studies in Australia have shown that people who are more socio-economically disadvantaged and remotely located are more vulnerable to the health impacts of heatwaves. Heatwaves have significantly increased the mortality burden in Australia. From 2000 to 2019, 2296 deaths per year were associated with heat-related temperatures in Australia.

Bushfires have a direct effect on human health from exposure to flames and heat or involvement in bushfire events, such as burns, injuries, mental health and death. Beyond that, the bushfire smoke, due to its ability to travel hundreds and even thousands of kilometres, can result in more health risks spread over a wider area, such as eye irritation and corneal abrasions, cardiorespiratory mortality and morbidity, cancer and adverse birth outcomes.

Floods are an increasing risk as heavy rainfall events become more common. Queensland is the state most impacted by floods (often 15 flood days per year from 2000 to 2020), with New South Wales (NSW) being the second most impacted state (around 9 days per year). In addition to infrastructure and property damage, floods can have direct and indirect effects on human health through the contamination of water and food supply systems, as well as increasing the risk of infectious diseases and having a major impact on mental health. A recent global study with Australia data included, published in The BMJ, found that flood exposure could increase all-cause cardiovascular and respiratory mortality risks for up to 60 days after exposure.

Drought is associated with increased risk of bushfires, dust storms and heatwaves, which can lead to increased mortality and cardiorespiratory problems. Limited access to clean water can lead to increased risks of infectious illnesses and can cause food insecurity. Drought may also induce mental health problems. Overall, western and southern Australia experienced more drought than other areas of Australia from 2000 to 2020, and over 50% of land experienced at least one month of drought during the two decades.

Australia’s strategies and policies of adaptation to the health impacts of climate change

As summarised by The Lancet Regional Health – Western Pacific report, Australia’s national responses to the climate health crisis have been inadequate. Climate change and health issues have been addressed in a siloed and disconnected way at the national level. The Australian National Climate Resilience and Adaptation Strategy released in October 2021 did not put health at the centre of the policies.

Fortunately, immediately after the Western Pacific report was published and since COP28, Australia has made some positive climate-relevant policy changes. At COP28, Australia joined the Alliance for Transformative Action on Climate and Health (ATACH) and launched its first National Health and Climate Strategy (the Strategy). The ATACH is led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and aims to build climate resilient and sustainable health systems. The Strategy sets out a plan to respond to the health impacts of climate change, including:

  • building a climate-resilient health system and enhancing capacity to protect health and wellbeing from impacts;
  • building sustainable high quality net zero health systems and communities; and
  • supporting healthy, climate-resilient and sustainable communities through a whole of government approach.

What can Australian health professionals do?

Health professionals will play a leading role in fulfilling the aims of the ATACH and plans of the Strategy. As health is a universal value, placing health at the centre can frame the need for climate actions in a way that is more personally meaningful and less controversial for the public and policy makers. As a health professional, you have the trust and respect of the community and the authority to inform the public and other decision makers about some key messages, including:

  • the urgent need for action on climate change;
  • the benefits to human health if we do take action; and
  • the risks of human health if we do not take action.

The Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA) has developed a practical guide on 10 ways to act on climate change. These include:

  • As a health professional, you can:
    • speak to the media to get this important issue on the public agenda using your trusted voice; see guides same as above;
    • join your green team at work, participate or support the sustainability team in your workplace, and if there is no such team, consider creating one;

  • In your community, you can:
    • engage with your local Member of Parliament to lobby for climate action and sustainability in your area;
    • volunteer your time in a local environmental sustainability group at your local council, school, university or workplace;

    • talk to your friends and family about climate change and health, see a guide on how to communicate this effectively.

  • As an individual, you can:

    • learn how climate change impacts health from many resources, for example, CAHA, WHO, and the MJA and The Lancet reports;
    • reduce your carbon footprint, start with some simple things (eg, eat less meat, use active/public transport, reuse and recycle, reduce energy use, support green power);
    • divest your money away from banks and super funds that invest in fossil fuel projects.

In addition to these steps, as a health professional who is on the frontline protecting people’s health from climate impacts like heatwaves and bushfire smoke, you can identify and provide many opportunities to advance knowledge about the health impacts of climate change and provide novel solutions. You can do this by:

  • joining interdisciplinary research projects on climate change and health;
  • assisting data collection and analysis systems to monitor climate-related changes in population exposures, vulnerabilities and health outcomes;
  • working closely with your organisations and other sectors to develop adaptation plans for both health service organisations and communities; and
  • identifying potential novel solutions based on your frontline experience in health care.

Dr Rongbin Xu is a research fellow at Monash University and a VicHealth postdoctoral fellow. He won the Victorian Premier’s Excellence Award 2023-24 for his research on health and epigenetic impacts of climate change.

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. 

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4 thoughts on “What can health professionals do about climate change?

  1. George Crisp says:

    Also useful resources materials at

    Consider joining and supporting Doctorsxfor the Environment Australia and CAHA

  2. Ediriweera Desapriya says:

    Climate change, driven largely by the economic activities and high carbon footprints of rich countries, poses a severe threat to food security for children in under-resourced regions of Asia, Africa, and South America. The selfish behaviors and activities of individuals in these nations exacerbate the climate crisis, leading to malnutrition and health issues among vulnerable children. This situation underscores the urgent need for a global response.

    To address this crisis, it is essential to implement resilient agricultural practices, improve infrastructure, and enhance international support. These measures can help ensure that children in these vulnerable regions have access to adequate nutrition and a healthier future. Industrialized nations must take responsibility for their environmental impact and contribute to global efforts to combat climate change and protect vulnerable populations.

  3. Sue Sherratt says:

    Recently, I have had three journal papers published in British and United States journals regarding the effects of climate change on communication, swallowing and hearing disorders. These included steps that health professionals can take with colleagues, patients, students, the public and ourselves. I am imminently about to present on this topic to a conference in the United States. I have tried to engage universities and journals here on this issue but to no avail. Why are Australian speech pathologists (and possibly other health professionals) so resistant to any discussion of the effect of climate change and the environment on these significant health issues?

  4. John Orchard says:

    It is hard to disagree with any of the listed items. It does frustrate me that groups of Doctors who profess to be highly conscious of damaging effects of climate change almost routinely keep their focus outside the health sector. We aren’t solving global warming by finger-pointing at other sectors. There seems to be no appetite within health to de-fund health care that is emissions-intensive and known also to be ineffective health-care (eg knee arthroscopy, stents for stable angina, most spinal procedures, opiates for non-cancer pain). Equally there is no appetite for properly funding exercise-based health-care which is low emissions and highly effective. Health should be setting an example by removing subsidies from ineffective health-care and we can’t bring ourselves to even discuss the issue.

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