6
Dec
2020

Climate change is happening now. It is damaging our health now. It requires action now.

by Stephen Duckett and Will Mackey


Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 December 2020

Last week a record-breaking heatwave scorched swathes of eastern Australia – and it wasn’t even summer. Australia has just had its hottest November on record. The heat and accompanying fire risk were an ominous reminder of the devastating bushfires that burned a fifth of Australia’s forest last summer.

Australia is about 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than it was a hundred years ago. This warming is harming the health and wellbeing of Australians right now, and it is only going to get worse. Despite some politicians and media outlets suggesting that global warming is somehow controversial, polls consistently show that Australians get it: an overwhelming majority of us agree that the country is already suffering the effects of climate change.

Climate change is happening now. It is damaging Australians’ health now. It requires action now.

The Grattan Institute has today released a report that argues that, in the absence of a comprehensive national strategy, the health sector must adapt to the changing climate in Australia. And it must prepare to reduce its own emissions to help minimise further damage to human health.

Last summer’s bushfires provided a deadly demonstration of the challenges the health sector will face with increasing intensity as we cause the climate to change. Thirty-three people were killed by the bushfires themselves. In areas ravaged by fires, the conditions cut off the supply of medications for residents, and prevented distressed or injured people from being able to visit their local doctor or hospital. Thousands of people lost their homes and their livelihoods. Those who fought fires or lived in hard-hit areas will suffer the mental health consequences for decades to come.

Australia is about 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than it was a hundred years ago. This warming is harming the health and wellbeing of Australians right now, and it is only going to get worse. Despite some politicians and media outlets suggesting that global warming is somehow controversial, polls consistently show that Australians get it: an overwhelming majority of us agree that the country is already suffering the effects of climate change.

Climate change is happening now. It is damaging Australians’ health now. It requires action now.

The Grattan Institute has today released a report that argues that, in the absence of a comprehensive national strategy, the health sector must adapt to the changing climate in Australia. And it must prepare to reduce its own emissions to help minimise further damage to human health.

Last summer’s bushfires provided a deadly demonstration of the challenges the health sector will face with increasing intensity as we cause the climate to change. Thirty-three people were killed by the bushfires themselves. In areas ravaged by fires, the conditions cut off the supply of medications for residents, and prevented distressed or injured people from being able to visit their local doctor or hospital. Thousands of people lost their homes and their livelihoods. Those who fought fires or lived in hard-hit areas will suffer the mental health consequences for decades to come.

After decades of inaction on climate change, the health sector – federal and state health departments, public and private hospitals, local healthcare networks across the country – must rapidly adapt to the new climate realities facing Australia. It must develop plans and protocols to minimise the harm caused by the inevitable future climate disasters.

The health sector must clearly communicate with the public about the health risks of climate disasters, and provide practical advice about what people can do to help protect themselves. It must ensure the supply of healthcare goods and services can continue in the face of disaster. It must ensure mental health support is available, not only during the crisis but for decades after.

The changing climate will hurt some Australians more than others. One-quarter of the Indigenous population of NSW and Victoria lived in areas affected by last summer’s bushfires. Heatwaves are twice as likely to harm people with lower incomes. Droughts create and exacerbate mental health problems in rural communities. Our health response must be tailored to, and driven by, the communities that will need it most.

These are long-term health threats that require long-term planning. The Commonwealth Department of Health must incorporate the clear link between climate change and human health in its long-term strategies.

And, although we are too late to prevent climate change from harming our health, we can act now to prevent greater damage. The health sector should lead the way. State and territory public health sectors should have net-zero emissions plans in place by the end of 2023.

For the health sector, responding to climate change is not an optional extra, it is core business.

In 2020, Australia listened to the science and acted on the health advice to prevent some of the catastrophic health costs caused by COVID-19. Now we must do it again.