Australian policy inaction on climate change threatens lives

29 November 2018
First national report on health and climate change
The Australian government's policy inaction on climate change is threatening lives, says a report in today's Medical Journal of Australia.

The Australian report is part of a joint initiative between The Medical Journal of Australia and The Lancet to track progress on health and climate change in Australia and to inform policy makers of political actions needed.

It was developed by 19 leading scientists from 13 universities and research institutes, co-led by Dr Ying Zhang, from the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, and Associate Professor Paul Beggs from Macquarie University’s Department of Environmental Sciences.

It is the first report to examine Australia’s broad progress on climate change and human health, including its social, economic and political determinants as well as progress towards mitigation and adaptation.

The Australian report is accompanied by A Briefing for Australian Policymakers. Its publication is synchronised to coincide with the release of the Lancet Countdown 2018 Global Report that examines worldwide progress on climate change and human health in the context of the Paris Agreement.

“Australia is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on health. Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, changing infectious disease patterns, increasing food insecurity, and migration and population displacement all threaten Australians’ health and wellbeing and increase the burden on our health system,” say Zhang and Beggs.

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From a health perspective, taking action to curb emissions will accrue numerous population-level benefits.
Professor Tony Capon, University of Sydney

Policy inaction is exacerbating or failing to arrest a host of climate change-affected risk factors and vulnerabilities in humans and the environment. These are linked to rising rates of death and hospitalisations from infectious diseases, cardiovascular disease and suicides, says the report.

“Ongoing delays in confronting these challenges exacerbate both the extent of the adverse health outcomes that they may cause and the scale of the responses that they will ultimately require,” say Zhang and Beggs.

Tackling the causes and consequences of climate change presents significant opportunities for Australian policymakers says Dr Tony Capon, the inaugural Professor of Planetary Health at the University of Sydney

“From a health perspective, taking action to curb emissions will accrue numerous population-level benefits, such as reductions in cardiovascular and respiratory disease rates, with associated healthcare cost savings,” he says.

In many respects, Australia has gone backwards and now lags behind other high-income countries such as the UK and Germany.
Dr Ying Zhang, report co-author, University of Sydney

“Further, proactive measures to increase the resilience and adaptive capabilities of Australian health systems and local communities are likely to generate long-term economic savings, partly due to their positive impact on mental health.”

The report tracks progress on health and climate change across 41 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.

These categories and indicators, and the methods used for each, are largely the same as those used in the Lancet Countdown’s global assessment, but have been adjusted to the Australian context.

Increased mortality in extreme heatwaves is not something that may happen, it’s happening now and will continue as global temperatures continue to rise.
Professor Kris Ebi, University of Washington

Key findings

“In many respects, Australia has gone backwards and now lags behind other high-income countries such as the UK and Germany,” says Dr Zhang.

“Examples include the persistence of a very high carbon-intensive energy system in Australia, and our slow transition to renewables and low-carbon electricity generation.

“We also point to some examples of good progress, such as heatwave response planning and some good policy work, particularly in the ACT and Queensland,” says Dr Beggs.

“Given the overall poor state of progress on climate change and health in Australia, we now have an enormous opportunity to take action, protect human health and lives and to achieve economic benefits in the process.”

Implications for Australian Policymakers

Findings of the MJA-Lancet report form the basis for recommendations presented in The Lancet Countdown 2018 Report: Briefing for Australian Policymakers. The briefing has been endorsed by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Australian Medical Students’ Association.

The MJA-Lancet Countdown team of researchers highlights the report’s implications for Australian policy in four vital areas:

  • Climate-sensitive infectious diseases
  • Decarbonisation of Australia’s energy system
  • Sustainable travel infrastructure and uptake
  • Mental health impacts of climate change.

There is significant scope for policy action by all levels of government on the public health risks and opportunities associated with climate change in Australia, especially in these areas. 

Dan Gaffney

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