The federal government’s lack of engagement on health and climate change has left Australians at significant risk of illness through heat, fire and extreme weather events, and urgent national action is required to prevent harm and deaths, a global scientific collaboration has found.
On Thursday, international medical journal the Lancet published its Countdown report, a multi-institutional project led by University College in London that examines progress on climate change and health throughout the world.
Its first two assessments were published in 2017 and 2018, with annual assessments continuing until 2030, consistent with the near-term timeline of the Paris climate agreement. Findings relating to Australia were tracked and published by the Medical Journal of Australia.
Australia was assessed across 31 indicators divided into five broad sections: climate change impacts, exposures and vulnerability; adaptation, planning and resilience for health; mitigation actions and health co-benefits; finance and economics; and public and political engagement.
The report found that while there had been some progress at state and local government levels, “there continues to be no engagement on health and climate change in the Australian federal parliament, and Australia performs poorly across many of the indicators in comparison to other developed countries; for example, it is one of the world’s largest net exporters of coal and its electricity generation from low-carbon sources is low”.
“We also find significantly increasing exposure of Australians to heatwaves and, in most states and territories, continuing elevated suicide rates at higher temperatures,” wrote the authors, led by Associate Professor Paul Beggs of Macquarie University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.
“As a direct result of this failure, we conclude that Australia remains at significant risk of declines in health due to climate change, and that substantial and sustained national action is urgently required in order to prevent this … This work is urgent.”
Spokeswoman for Doctors for the Environment Australia, Dr Arnagretta Hunter, agreed Australia was poorly prepared for the health challenge of climate change.
“Doctors around Australia are already seeing multiple health effects from climate change,” Hunter, a cardiologist, said.
“Average summer temperatures in Australia have risen by 1.66C in the past 20 years, with the intensity of heatwaves rising by a third. And with the increasing temperatures over summer we know there has been increased hospital admissions with ill health. Mortality rates are also affected.”
In 2014, Melbourne experienced temperatures over 41C from 14 to 17 January, as well as 167 excess deaths and a new record set for the highest number of calls for ambulance services ever received in a day, she said. Hunter described Australia as the developed country with the most serious vulnerability to climate change through heat, fire, water shortages and extreme weather events.
“Doctors for the Environment Australia joins the loud chorus across Australia calling for the federal government to acknowledge the risk and act in proportion to the magnitude of the threat,” she said.
In 2019, the Australian Medical Association, Doctors for the Environment Australia and the World Medical Association recognised climate change as a health emergency.
Public Health Association of Australia senior policy officer Dr Ingrid Johnston said the priorities of the fossil fuel industry had been placed ahead of the health of Australians.
“No one can dispute that climate change poses significant immediate, medium-term and long-term risks to the health of Australians and communities around the world,” she told Guardian Australia. “And yet the government appears to believe that climate change is not a mainstream health issue. This is tragically wrong. The issues cannot be siloed.”
She called on the prime minister, Scott Morrison, to issue a statement unambiguously acknowledging the link between climate change and health.
Johnston said the activities of the federal government’s disaster and climate resilience reference group – a group of senior officials which considers the risks and opportunities arising from climate change and natural disasters – had not been transparent in its work.
“The public has a right to know what that working group is doing,” she said. “How much information is the government giving consideration to regarding climate impacts in national assessments of health?
“Australians are crying out for genuine, smart and empathetic national leadership. The above cannot happen without a well-resourced and national effort to reduce future threat levels from fires and drought.”
She said the Public Health Association of Australia wanted a Coag health and climate change forum consisting of ministers with responsibility for health, environment, energy and other portfolios.
“No area is untouched by climate change,” Johnston said. “This Coag working group would incorporate academic expertise on how to adapt the health system to a changing climate with more natural disasters, with adequate funding for proposals. The sniping politics has to stop so we can get on with working for health and the national interest.
“Finally, we call out the policy that does exist. It is a policy that places the fossil fuel industry above the health and wellbeing of all Australians. It backs subsidies for fossil fuels and subverts tough environmental planning for mines and gas projects.”
General practitioner Dr Peter Tait, who also has a master’s degree in climate change and is involved with health and environmental groups, said there was no mechanism in the national health system to collect information about climate-related illnesses other than in a random or anecdotal way.
“Even in emergency departments where the severe end of these conditions go, data collection is dependent on the treating doctor using a code to identify heat stress or natural disaster effects, and apart from the obvious ones, like burns, they don’t,” he said.
“We do know that the mental health toll from destructive fires and other natural disasters will be high. This is a supernatural disaster occasioned by decades of purposeful neglect by governments and as that dawns on people, anger and distress will rise.”
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