A person holds a sign saying Climate Justice Now.

Climate action needed to protect public health

Climate action needed to protect public health

PHAA Intern Allyson Todd and PHAA Senior Policy and Advocacy Adviser Malcolm Baalman

Climate change poses one of the biggest threats to human health.

The latest IPCC assessment report urges all nations to urgently take far greater climate change action to halve global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030. This will be critical to equitably meeting our international sustainable development goals.

Our present predominately fossil fuel-based economy has caused great damage to our environment, including increased air pollution, rising sea levels, and changing weather patterns. This has brought with it multiple health challenges, such as:

  • Greater heat stress-related illness
  • Increased spread of infectious and vector-borne diseases
  • Poor mental health
  • Greater food insecurity
  • Unsafe drinking water
  • Loss of shelter and displacement of people
  • Increased respiratory-related illnesses

Australia is already experiencing the effects of climate change through weather extremes including bushfires, drought, and floods. Their frequency and severity are expected to increase.

The 2019/2020 summer bushfires have shown both direct and indirect health consequences of a changing climate. Findings from the February 2022 IPCC report identify that the devastating bushfires directly took 33 lives. Bushfire smoke is generally estimated to have led to a further 417 deaths, and thousands of hospital admissions occurred due to cardiovascular and respiratory related illnesses.

The bushfires also exposed millions of people to poor air quality. Ambient particulate matter levels far exceeded the safety threshold, putting those with pre-existing medical conditions including respiratory illnessest further risk of morbidity and mortality.

The recent record level flooding in Lismore and other communities in northern New South Wales further demonstrates the need for climate action to protect our health.  Locals were  displaced from their homes and left with a mammoth clean up task, including public health risks such as dirty water and mould remediation. The floods also led to disruption to the food supply chain, a system already struggling from the COVID-19 pandemic. Barely a month later, residents were challenged with further flash flooding. Increased occurrences of these severe weather events will become the new normal if climate action is not urgently taken.

Climate change will lead to greater inequities among vulnerable communities including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, people with pre-existing medical conditions, and those socioeconomically disadvantaged.

The pandemic and recent natural disasters have brought to light the need to adopt a systems thinking approach to protect the environment and human health to reduce future strain on our health system and economy. Solutions to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate have the potential to provide a resilient health system and protect our most vulnerable populations.

Building a resilient health system is necessary to adapt and respond to stresses effectively and efficiently. This requires a co-ordinated approach, through strong commitment from all levels of government and people to provide mutual benefits for human and environmental health.

The bi-directional relationship between the environment and human health brings the opportunity to provide multiple co-benefits to protect our environment and health. These include:

  • Active transport (e.g., cycling or walking) provides less reliance on and use of cars, decreases the carbon footprint, while promoting cleaner air. It also increases physical activity, and protects against chronic illnesses such as obesity and cardiovascular disease.
  • Eating a more plant-filled diet and reducing meat intake improves nutritional intake and reduces GHG emissions.
  • Urban greening to reduce the heat island effect, promote biodiversity, and boost mental health.

Further political commitment is needed to develop and enact policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change in ways that protect and promote health. This includes transitioning away from fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy, to reach the 2015 Paris Agreement targets.

In the lead up to the 2022 federal election, PHAA is calling for climate and health to be prioritised.  Our specific calls for action are:

  • Develop, implement and enforce an integrated and comprehensive suite of policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change in ways that protect and promote health.
  • Drive the transition from a fossil-fuel-based economy through the development of renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy demand reduction.

The World Health Organisation recognises the need to advocate for our planet, our health as they celebrate World Health Day on 7 April.

It is time to take bold action and advocate for our planet and our health. Our collective future depends on it.


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Image: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

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