Climate change: what actions can we take as health professionals?

Public Health Association of Australia

In a message to health professionals, the World Health Organization says ‘climate change will be the defining issue for health systems in the 21st century, interacting with all of the social determinants of health.’ People working in public health have already begun witnessing the impacts of climate change on population health, and while it is ultimately up to governments to take urgent, targeted and coordinated action towards climate change and its effects, there are also important ways that health professionals can make a difference.

While the debate continues in Australia about signing up to a zero emissions target by 2050, the connections between climate and health, and the importance of systemic changes in Australia to recognise and address them, have been highlighted in four major reports recently released: the Lancet Countdown report (2020), the MJA-Lancet Countdown report (2020), the Report of the WA Climate Health Inquiry (December 2020), and the Climate and Health – Preparing for the Next Disaster report by the Grattan Institute (December 2020). Between them, these reports make clear that health impacts are happening now and accelerating; Australia has not been doing enough, and we are running out of time to turn the tide.

The Paris Agreement seeks to limit global warming to well below 2oC, and ideally to 1.5oC, but the situation has already reached an average of 1.2oC globally, and 1.5oC in Australia. A recent report from the University of Melbourne Climate Energy College found that to be consistent with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target must be 74% below 2005 emissions levels, with net-zero emissions reached by 2035. To limit warming to well below 2°C, the target must be 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, 67% by 2035, and net-zero emissions reached by 2045. The simple ‘net-zero emissions by 2050’ target for Australia that is commonly quoted is not sufficient for meeting the Paris Agreement goal.

Despite the clear evidence of impacts, Australia continues to defy the science. We are the only OECD country to have worsened the carbon intensity of our energy supplies over the last three decades, and we are now 36% worse than the global average.

The Public Health Association of Australia has put the case strongly that recognising climate change must be a central feature of the government’s soon-to-be-released National Preventive Health Strategy to ensure it is fit for purpose for Australia in the 21st century. Governments have key roles to play, but there are also ways in which health professionals can make an important contribution.

Health professionals are some of the most trusted members of our community, making them powerful messengers for building public understanding of the health impacts of climate change, as well as public support for climate action.

To that end, the Climate and Health Alliance has developed a new fact sheet to assist health professionals seeking to act on climate change in their communities, workplaces, and as individuals.

The fact sheet provides 10 simple ways for health professionals to act on climate change:

  1. Speak to your patients and clients. You can outline how your patient, or their family members, may be affected by climate impacts (e.g., the risks to older patients created by more frequent and intense heatwaves, or the risks to those with respiratory illness from bushfire smoke).
  2. Speak to the media. As the most trusted source of information on the health impacts of climate change, health professionals are in a unique position to share their knowledge by participating in interviews, writing opinion pieces to keep the community informed and updated.
  3. Join your green team at work. Find out if your workplace has a sustainability team. Take part and offer your support. If no such group exists, start one.
  4. Sign up to a sustainable healthcare program. Lobby your workplace to join the Global Green and Healthy Hospital network – a free collaborative network of health organisations who are reducing their environmental impacts for a healthier future for people and the planet.
  5. Engage with your local MP. Lobby for climate action and sustainability in your area by calling, emailing or writing to your local MP. Better still, meet with your MP online or in person to have your voice heard.
  6. Volunteer your time. Become a member of a local environmental sustainability group at your local council, school, university or workplace.
  7. Talk to your friends and family. Personal conversations can bring family and friends a long way in thinking and acting on climate. Once you’ve found people in your life who are concerned, plan to take action with them.
  8. Learn how climate change impacts health. There is no end to excellent resources for learning about climate change and its health impacts. Consider joining the Climate Health Champions Facebook group to keep up to date on the latest resources.
  9. Reduce your carbon footprint. Eat less meat. Use more public transport. Reduce, reuse and recycle. Reduce energy use at home. Buy GreenPower from your energy provider.
  10. Divest your money. Many Australian banks and super funds invest in fossil fuel projects. Take your money away from them which will put pressure on companies that are currently involved in fossil fuel extraction to invest in renewable energy.

Preventing deaths, illness, injuries and poor wellbeing associated with climate change requires leadership at all levels to tackle the root causes. The PHAA will continue to provide what support we can for health professionals and the health sector to build climate resistance, and ensure the community is well informed and capable of taking health protective actions.


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