Climate change is wreaking havoc on Australians’ health. What’s our plan to fix things? – ABC News #auspol #qldpol #AirPollution is killing us! #ClimateEmergency Demand #ClimateAction #FundOurFutureNotGas

A growing number of Australians are experiencing devastating health problems arising from climate change. Could a coordinated national health strategy help?

Sydney blanketed by smoke on December 2, 2019 due to bushfires.(ABC News)

For many Australians who have grown up in our “sunburnt country”, last week’s nation-wide heatwave may have felt like business as usual. It’s almost summer, after all.

But if you dig into the statistics, the picture that emerges is deeply alarming, especially when considered in light of last year’s devastating bushfires: We’ve just experienced Australia’s warmest November on record. 

The hottest year on record was 2019, and 2020 continues to track in the same direction. Back-to-back days of 40 degrees-plus in Sydney last week occurred for only the second time in 162 years.

But it’s not just the environment that’s suffering. Growing numbers of Australians are experiencing health probMedical Journal of Australia/Lancet Countdown on health and climate changelems, and even an increased risk of death, as a result of a rapidly changing climate.

The this week argued urgent action is needed to prevent human health being further affected. 

The health impact of climate change has already led to a 53.7 per cent global increase in heat-related mortality between 2010 and 2018, mainly affecting Japan, China, central Europe and northern India. 

In Australia, in the same timeframe we’ve seen a 22 per cent increase in the annual average number of days of population exposure to bushfires, which killed 41 people last summer and exposed “much of Australia’s population to hazardous air quality for a prolonged period of time”. 

Exposure to mosquito-born diseases including malaria and dengue fever has also increased along with the threat from zoonotic disease, graphically demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Food security took a hit, too, implying associated malnutrition.

So what is being done to improve the health outcomes of Australians in the face of accelerating climate change? And which foreign nations should Australia be looking to as leaders?

Australia has experienced record-breaking hot weather in recent years.(ABC News: Shelley Lloyd)

Who is responsible?

Australia’s federal system makes healthcare a state responsibility — we have seen this play out during the coronavirus pandemic.

Because of this state-based approach, not all states and territories are on the same page when it comes to strategies linking health and climate.

Western Australia is preparing to release the results of its Climate Health WA Inquiry, which will emphasise connections between climate change and physical and mental health, vulnerability and resilience. Victoria and Queensland have similar documents.

But there are growing calls for Australia to develop a national plan of action that considers the widening impact of global warming on health as a problem in its own right, not tied to progress on climate change policy.

“I think a national approach is absolutely essential, particularly when we get to the emergency management of these things,” says Andrew Gissing, a risk and resilience expert from Risk Frontiers. 

Gissing argues the importance of a national approach is obvious in areas like warning systems for extreme heat, which can’t be coordinated effectively with a state-by-state approach. Heatwave warning systems is an area the Bureau of Meteorology is working on.

Richard Yin, a Perth GP and member of Doctors for the Environment, has been arguing for a national health and climate change plan for years.

Australia does not have such a strategy, he says, and according to the MJA/Lancet report, only about 50 of 100 countries in the survey do, with less than 4 per cent of those that are in place considered effective.

“Australia needs to prepare for climate change impacts on health and that means actually mapping what’s going on and being able to predict what’s going on,” Yin says. “There’s a complexity to the task and a number of indicators that we’re going to need to try to track.”

Yin says that because he’s in Perth, his patients seem to be avoiding the worst health affects of climate change. But he is seeing more patients coming to him with what he describes as “eco-anxiety”.

Yin’s colleagues working in regional WA are regularly treating patients for heat-related health conditions, he adds, and in some cases people have had to move because of the impact of smoke from bushfires.

“The health impacts from smoke can be can be horrific,” Yin says, noting some people with asthma or lung disease have been in and out of hospital emergency departments until deciding to leave the place they’re living, “because it’s life threatening”.

Georgia Behrens, Chair of the Australian Medical Students’ Association’s global health committee, agrees COVID-19 has proven how effectively Australia can manage national health emergencies by using a coordinated approach.

“With a shared set of goals and principles we can work consistently across the country,” she says. “[The pandemic] has given us some early indications of a way that model could potentially work to tackle this shared health emergency.”

Which countries are doing it best?

From cooling rooms in France to England’s heatwave plan, addressing the health impacts of climate change is a rapidly developing sector.

But Yin struggles to single out one country he feels has achieved the right approach to this problem. He notes the UK has made progress, but he believes its strategy “doesn’t really capture all of the issues and the planning was very general”.

And even if another country did show leadership, he says, it wouldn’t necessarily act as a blueprint for Australia because climate is so regionally specific. One area may be prone to extreme heat, but another faces flooding. Mosquito-borne diseases may be escalating in one place, while bushfire smoke affects another.

— Read on

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