Dr Aletha Ward – University of Southern Queensland
Nurses have been frontline in the pandemic response, demonstrating leadership in communicating science to our communities. However, another crisis is unfolding which calls for leadership from nurses, the largest healthcare profession in the healthcare industry. Our emerging climate crisis, labelled as a ‘code red for humanity’ by the IPCC, is already hurting the health and wellbeing of our communities. The rates of climate-related illnesses such as heat-related disorders, vector-borne diseases, respiratory diseases, allergies, diarrhoea and mental health challenges are on the rise. They’re also being perpetuated by extreme temperatures, pollution, bushfires and flooding. In fact, in November this year, a Canadian doctor became the first doctor in the world to diagnose a patient as suffering from climate change.
Additionally, the healthcare industry is experiencing somewhat of a paradox. While the industry is caring for the most vulnerable to climate related disease, it is responsible for approximately 4.6% of worldwide greenhouse emissions. If the global health care industry was a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter. A significant issue, when the industry is caring for those affected the most by climate change.
Nurses however play a key role in providing leadership to reduce emissions within the healthcare sector, and advocate for those vulnerable to climate-related disease and displacement. As a trusted profession, nurses need to agitate for and lead change within the healthcare sector to ensure our healthcare organisations embrace emissions reducing technologies and practices. This includes, however is not limited to, waste management. COVID-19 has created a waste crisis. However, this is both a challenge and an opportunity. An opportunity to invest in waste reduction technologies and recycling capacity, and to educate health care professionals in waste management.
While many nurses are at the bedside, many others are in managerial, leadership and education roles. Nurses can call for change within their healthcare organisations to invest in infrastructure that is emissions-neutral such as renewable energy, recycling, food waste technologies, and modelling good practice to our peers and patients.
Increasing education within the nursing workforce however is key to action on climate change and emissions reduction. Unfortunately, not all nurses are fully cognisant of the impact of climate change on health, or how best to address this.
It is essential that professional development is rolled out, nationally and internationally to educate nurses on waste reduction, the impact of climate on health, and how to best care and advocate for those who are most at risk.
Climate change health consequences and the importance of reducing emissions must be threaded throughout the undergraduate and post graduate nursing curriculum to ensure that our profession is using the latest evidence-based practice.
Additionally, nurses are essential in creating the science behind climate and health. Further funding for nurse-led interdisciplinary research is required to ascertain how climate is influencing those who we care for, and what we can do as a profession to mitigate this.
With 28 million nurses worldwide and over 437, 000 nurses in Australia alone, nurses are in the ‘box seat’ to influence our families, our friends, our community, our peers, our organisations, our nation and the world to take action on climate change and understand and mitigate the health impacts.
The time is now, to reach our capacity to address the health consequences of climate change, and reduce emissions in our homes and in the healthcare sector.
Climate change and health is one of seven areas for action in the PHAA’s federal election campaign. Learn more at VoteForPublicHealth.com