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Climate change a health risk, not just an environmental issue

11 May 2018
Doctors should be telling patients that climate change is an immediate health risk, not just an environmental problem, say University of Sydney scholars and a sustainable healthcare expert visiting from the UK, Dr David Pencheon.

“The healthcare system has an important opportunity and responsibility to demonstrate that climate change is not just an environmental problem but an immediate health risk—to both patients and public,” says Dr Pencheon who gives the keynote address to the Australian College of Physicians Congress on Monday 14 May in Sydney.

“The UK’s National Health Service now has 10 years of experience in this area, which has shown that risks can be reduced, money saved, health improved, and a lot of resources diverted from wasteful and unsafe practices to direct beneficial and sustainable healthcare.”

Dr Pencheon and University of Sydney scholars are working with government, clinicians and healthcare leaders to track and reduce the Australian healthcare system’s contribution to the nation's carbon footprint, which currently accounts for 7 percent of national emissions.

These lessons are outlined in a recent special edition of the Medical Journal of Australia.

We hope to raise awareness of health issues related to climate change among Australian medical professionals, who play a key role in reducing their risks.
Professor Tony Capon, University of Sydney

Climate change risks to health

Australia's climate makes it vulnerable to the impact of global warming and the experts warn there will be an escalation in heatwaves, droughts, fires and storms. For example, heat exposure in Australia claimed at least 5,332 deaths in the year between 1844 and 2010.

"Heat exposure is more lethal than any other natural disaster and represents Australia's greatest current climate-related health burden," said Dr Elizabeth Hanna from the Australian National University, and Associate Professor Lachlan McIver of Médecins Sans Frontières in the special edition of the Medical Journal of Australia.

The UK’s National Health Service now has 10 years of experience in this area, which has shown that risks can be reduced, money saved, health improved, and a lot of resources diverted from wasteful and unsafe practices to direct beneficial and sustainable healthcare.
Dr David Pencheon, University of Cambridge

Planetary health

Planetary health is a multi-disciplinary field founded on the interconnectedness of human and natural systems.

It recognises that human advancement and economic development impose heavy burdens on natural systems and that global patterns of human production and consumption are unsustainable.

As a result, the degradation of air, water, and land, together with global warming and associated climate change have seen a consequent loss of biodiversity, declining topsoil and arable land, reduced food security, and a host of extreme weather events that are predicted to worsen.

Through research, education, policy change, alternate investment approaches, and programs such as the Planetary Health Alliance, planetary health advocates are seeking to influence national and international approaches to economic production and development.

Countdown Report

The MJA report also highlights Australia's involvement in the Lancet Countdown report on health and climate change, first published in October 2017.

The Countdown Report tracks progress on health and climate change across 40 indicators divided into five categories: climate change impacts, exposures and vulnerability; adaptation planning and resilience for health; mitigation actions and health co-benefits; economics and finance; and public and political engagement.

“The inaugural Australian report is planned for release in late 2018 and is expected to be updated annually, says Professor Tony Capon, appointed by the University of Sydney in 2016 as the world’s first professor of planetary health.

“We hope to raise awareness of health issues related to climate change among Australian medical professionals, who play a key role in reducing their risks,” says Professor Capon, who leads the University of Sydney’s Planetary Health Platform.

“The Australian countdown is also envisioned as a timely endeavour that will accelerate the Australian government response to climate change and its recognition of the health benefits of urgent climate action,” Professor Capon says.

“As we enter the era of sustainable development, with all countries having signed up to the 17 UN sustainable development goals last year, I am hopeful that the new field of planetary health with help us collectively navigate a pathway to a sustainable future.”

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