Climate change challenges to health – launch of new report

By Celia McMichael

The Australian Academy of Science (AAS) has just launched its new report: Climate Change Challenges to Health: Risks and Opportunities. The report makes a call for action from all Australian governments to plan for and address the impacts of climate change on human health. Since its launch, the report has generated substantial media interest.

By the end of the century, global temperatures are likely to have risen by at least 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This will further contribute to an increase in extreme weather events, disruptions to agriculture, loss of livelihoods and displacement and migration of people. Globally, it remains of critical importance to reduce carbon emissions. But countries and regions must also plan to adapt and meet the challenges that climate change presents to infrastructure and people, both now and in coming years and decades. For Australia, a critical concern is the health impacts of climate change.

These concerns were discussed last year by researchers at an AAS ‘think tank’ focused on climate change and health. Five groups were formed to consider key climate change threats: extreme weather events, disease distribution and incidence, disruptions to food and water, threats to livelihoods and risks to human security.

I was a rapporteur for the fifth group, which focused on human security. We represented a broad range of disciplines, including climate scientists, epidemiologists, economists and anthropologists, which contributed to nuanced and varied discussion. Our group discussed population health concerns, nationally and internationally, that are associated with climate change-related threats to human security, including:

  • threatened food supply chains and increasing food prices;
  • the mental health consequences of social, economic and demographic disruption and displacement, including via disruptions to traditional ways of living in remote Indigenous communities;
  • changing patterns of infectious diseases;
  • forced displacement and migration in response to climate change events, environmental degradation and rising sea-levels (e.g. increased infectious disease risk associated with migration to urban poor areas in low-income countries); and
  • the much-debated potential for unrest and violent conflict in response to climate change impacts and resource insecurity.

Climate change will shape these complex but important population health risks in combination with existing social, demographic, political, historical and economic factors.

It is those people who already experience poverty and disadvantage who are at higher health risk from climate change, with reduced opportunity to cope, adapt and recover. This may include culturally and linguistically diverse communities, the very young and the poor. For example, during heatwaves it is the lower socioeconomic groups who are more likely to work in buildings that are poorly ventilated and absorb heat, and culturally and linguistically diverse communities are less likely to receive heat-health information in appropriate formats. Research should be enhanced to increase our knowledge about socio-economic vulnerability to climate change and to improve strategies aimed at reducing disadvantage and supporting adaptation.

Climate change, however, is a global problem. In the Asia-Pacific region, threats to human security will be amplified particularly in low-income countries that are vulnerable to environmental change and disaster via erosion of livelihoods, food insecurity, migration and extreme weather events. Australia has an important role to play in our region, supporting adaptation to climate change and via provision of humanitarian aid.

Our group – human security – made four core recommendations that we regarded as critical n ensuring that Australia is prepared for the challenges that climate change will pose to our population’s health. These are:

  • Establish a multi-disciplinary research agenda to understand the full risks to human security. Develop a better understanding of the combined, emergent effects of climate change on human security.
  • Set up new communication strategies. Develop innovative education and communication mechanisms to provide an evidence base for policy and decision-making, and to raise public awareness of the human impacts of climate change. This is essential in order to generate broad support for forward-thinking government strategies for climate change mitigation and adaptation.
  • Establish a credible national climate policy. Establish a climate policy for Australia that focuses on emission reduction targets that can contribute to international efforts to avoid 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels.
  • Identify and understand effective adaptive practices. Identify and collate practices that reduce human insecurity and support population health both nationally and regionally to apply them in other contexts. If precautionary ‘no-regrets’ policies are taken, this could lead to increased cooperation and effective adaptation.

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