by Eugenie Kayak, National Committee Member and Chair of Victorian Branch, Doctors for the Environment Australia. This article was published on the ABC Environment Online Opinion on August 17, 2010
Discussion of health has dominated this election campaign, but the comparatively fewer mentions of climate change have not reflected its importance as a health issue.
THE HEALTH DEBATE that has dominated this election has seen significant pledges from both sides of politics concerning health care: more hospital beds, better mental health services, and new structures to improve efficiency and local control of services.
However pledging billions of dollars to healthcare will ultimately be little more than a band-aid measure unless the current rate of climate change and environmental degradation is addressed in an urgent, decisive manner.
As a modern society we have often failed to recognise, or conveniently forgotten, the absolute dependence of human health on stable, productive, healthy, natural environments. Nearly all the adverse environmental effects of climate change threaten human health and humanity possibly to catastrophic levels and probably sooner than many realise.
These are not extreme views but rather follow what has been expressed by respected international health journals and organisations concerning the relationship between climate change and human health. For example, in 2009, leading international medical journal, the Lancet, published that, “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”.
World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan stated that, “The real bottom-line of climate change is its risk to human health and quality of life”.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has said, “Climate change threatens all our goals for development and social progress” and “it is a true existential threat to the planet”.
There is no doubt that the Earth’s natural environment is changing and that human activities are implicated in most if not all of these changes. The composition of our atmosphere is changing, and we have just experienced our warmest decade on record. We are seeing changes in our oceans, water and land qualities and witnessing an alarming rate of species extinction. These effects are at both local and global levels, all are inter-related and all have adverse health implications.
Human health needs a healthy environment. Scientist Tim Flannery reminds us of this dependence with the analogy: “To ignore climate change in terms of human health would be a bit like treating the fish in a fishbowl, while refusing to change their ever more polluted water.”
According to the WHO, climate change will affect, in profoundly adverse ways, some of the most fundamental pre-requisites for good health: clean air and water, sufficient food, adequate shelter and freedom from disease.
The WHO has further identified five major health consequences of climate change:
- Disruption to food supplies leading to malnutrition and famine
- Increased frequency of extreme weather events with the potential for direct injuries, deaths and the subsequent outbreaks of disease.
- Increased threats to water security and quality, due to both scarcities of water and predicted increased frequency of torrential rainfall patterns.
- Higher temperatures leading to increased hospital admissions and death rates during more intense heatwaves and a predicted higher incidence of bushfires. Elevated air temperatures also lead to increased ground level ozone and air borne allergens with expected increases in acute respiratory events such as asthma.
- Changing patterns in the distribution of diseases carried by mosquitoes. For example dengue and Ross River viruses, in particular, are predicted to impact on those living in Australia.
All of the above are likely to contribute to the disruption and destruction of vulnerable towns and cities. Hence predicted adverse health effects of climate change are likely to be compounded by the fact that displaced people are particularly susceptible to physical and mental health problems. Australia, geographically situated in the Asia-Pacific region, will not be immune from the millions forced to migrate, with potentially significant impacts on both the quality of life of Australians and our regional stability and security.
Australia’s continuous reliance on fossil fuels is not only contributing to climate change via greenhouse gas emissions, but also to the more direct and immediate health effects caused by air pollution and decreasing levels of physical activity.
As an affluent developed nation we have a choice as to whether we continue our current trajectory and accept the inevitable ill health effects and premature deaths predicted, or move forward to a clean and healthy future.
This climate crisis allows our policy-makers a unique opportunity to make the changes needed to protect against not only the many devastating health effects caused by climate change but also the chronic diseases becoming so common in our community. For example the increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, heart and lung disease can all be in some part attributed to our reliance on cars, our physical inactivity and our eating habits.
We need to demand better designed cities to improve physical and mental health, decrease pollution and decrease carbon emissions. We need to encourage healthier eating habits and promote active lifestyles, all of which are good for the climate, good for the environment and good for our health.
Therefore perhaps the greatest irony of humanity’s impending devastating situation is not that our current rate of climate change and its subsequent threat to health is avoidable but that ‘what’s good for the climate is also good for health’.
The combination of lifestyle and infrastructure changes necessary for a low carbon economy, with the subsequent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions required in the next decade to prevent catastrophic climate change and the predicted improvements to human health, should be providing our policy makers with an unprecedented mandate to improve the health of our nation.