The climate crisis: a ‘clear and present need’

Experts are warning that Australia needs to be much better prepared for the health impacts of climate change

Despite a “clear and present need, Australia still lacks a nationwide adaptation plan” to combat the health impacts of climate change, a new report has concluded.

“As Australia recovers from the compounded effects of the bushfires and the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‐19) pandemic, the health profession has a pivotal role to play”, according to the latest MJA–Lancet Countdown on health and climate change, released this week.

“It is uniquely suited to integrate the response to these short term threats with the longer term public health implications of climate change, and to argue for the economic recovery from COVID‐19 to align with and strengthen Australia’s commitments under the Paris Agreement”.

However, there has been little sign of an improvement in our approach to the issues, say the authors of the countdown, which has been published annually since 2018.

The “continued reluctance to acknowledge the threats posed by climate change at the federal level has hindered progress”, and adaptation and mitigation frameworks have lagged as a result, the authors said.

Australia has faced two acute national emergencies over the past 12 months, in the form of the unprecedented and catastrophic 2019–20 Australian bushfire season and the global coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‐19) pandemic, it said.

“In the first instance, compelling attribution studies provide direct links between climate change and the health impacts of the 2019 bushfire season; in the second, it is likely that the COVID‐19 pandemic recovery and stimulus packages will influence a decade of international and Australian climate policy”.

As a result of the “Black Summer” bushfires, the monthly airborne particulate matter less than 2.5 μm in diameter (PM2.5) concentrations in NSW and the ACT in December 2019 were the highest of any month in any state or territory over the period 2000–2019 at 26.0 μg/m3 and 71.6 μg/m3 respectively, and insured economic losses were $2.2 billion, the report revealed.

AMA President, Dr Omar Khorshid, said the findings “demonstrate the need for urgent action from the Australian Government to limit the health risks of rising temperatures”.

“As detailed in the Countdown report… the 2019-20 bushfire season resulted in 33 tragic casualties, and smoke pollution is estimated to have caused 417 excess deaths along with thousands of hospitalisations for cardiovascular and respiratory problems,” he said.

Dr Khorshid said medical practitioners were directly confronted with the health impacts of the fire season, and played a key role in advocating for action, saying they should “draw attention to large-scale and urgent health threats like climate change, and advocate for an evidence-based and ambitious response from our governments.”

The AMA, along with the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Australian Medical Students Association have issued three key recommendations based on the reports findings:

  • Direct stimulus spending towards renewable energy and public and active transport infrastructure –  Significant health benefits would arise from reduced air pollution and increased physical activity on a population level as well as the longer-term health benefits of mitigating climate change.

  • Prepare and support communities affected by climate disasters – including disaster planning, preparation and education, community-scale healthcare delivery, development of robust community renewable energy systems; and restoration of ecosystems informed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

  • Develop a national climate change and health strategy – to address both climate mitigation and adaptation, and encompass prevention, planning and preparedness; climate-health research; resilience and sustainability of the healthcare system and health equity

The report examines indicators across five broad domains: climate change impacts, exposures and vulnerability; adaptation, planning and resilience for health; mitigation actions and health co‐benefits; economics and finance; and public and political engagement.



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