Code Red: We need climate action now for a healthy future

By Takuzo Kimura, Physiotherapist and CAHA Publications Volunteer and Remy Shergill, CAHA Campaigns and Communications Manager 

Source: APNA Primary Times Winter 2022 (Volume 22, Issue 1)


Nurses working in Australia are well aware that climate change is already affecting our health. In a 2020 survey by the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA),1 nurses reported that they see heat stress, mental distress, respiratory illness and other conditions relating to climate change impacts in their work. Over 75% of nurses surveyed were alarmed or concerned about climate change. 

This response is appropriate. This year, the global peak body for climate science released the most comprehensive summary yet of the evidence, which confirms that climate change is already affecting our health. CAHA has recently produced summaries of this evidence. 

 

What is the IPCC? 

The global peak body for climate science is known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. The panel has reviewed thousands of scientific papers and collated the evidence in three reports. The two most recent reports were published earlier this year:  

  • Impacts, Adaptations and Vulnerabilities, which summarises a range of climate impacts, including on our health2; and 

  • Mitigation of Climate Change, which summarises a range of solutions available, including health-based solutions.3 

The IPCC reports are a crucial resource that helps inform policymakers worldwide. But both reports are several thousand pages long, with the implications for health spread throughout the many chapters. CAHA has now released two summaries that cut these tomes into digestible 20-page reads: Climate Change is a Health Crisis4 and Climate Action for a Healthy Future.

 

The key findings 

Climate change is already harming people’s health 

Climate change affects human health and wellbeing in Australia in diverse ways, including: 

  • Illness, injury and death caused by extreme climate events, such as floods, bushfires and heatwaves 

  • Increased spread of vector-borne diseases  

  • A rise in cardiovascular disease caused by extreme heat 

  • Respiratory diseases from air pollution 

  • Food insecurity 

  • Increased risks for mental health and wellbeing 

  • Effects on livelihoods, migration and conflict. 

Let’s take a look at extreme heat, to which Australia is highly susceptible. The evidence shows that extreme heat harms our physical and mental health, diminishes food supplies, and amplifies the destructiveness of bushfires. Heat stress is especially bad in our cities, where global warming meets the urban heat island effect. 

With a growing list of climate-related illnesses and injuries, Australia needs to strengthen its health system in response. Right now, hospitals and other critical facilities face physical risks from weather-related hazards exacerbated by climate change that were not originally anticipated in building and infrastructure design. The health system will increasingly struggle to serve its population, especially vulnerable groups. 

Inequity features heavily in both IPCC reports. Climate impacts widen the gaps between the “haves” and “have-nots” in our cultural, political and socioeconomic systems. Climate-driven health inequities are especially stark in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Sadly, the people who have emitted the fewest carbon emissions are often the most affected by the consequences of climate change. This is true both locally and globally.  

The IPCC acknowledges that climate change impacts expose the widening social inequality, created during a global history of systemic oppression and exploitation. Climate change drives displacement of people, causes shortages in food supply, negatively impacts human health, and exacerbates inequities in quality of life. 

 

We urgently need more action to protect our health 

The IPCC reports demonstrate how current political and financial policies of industrialised nations – including Australia – are insufficient to protect our collective health and wellbeing. If policies do not quickly shift, industrialised nations are on track to tip global temperature change past the point at which humans can adapt. 

The pandemic has shown that a responsible, adaptable and evidence-based public health response saves lives, while a passive, superficial and rigid public policy will endanger them. To respond to climate change – the biggest health problem of the 21st century6 – we need urgent action to save lives. 

However, the pandemic has also revealed that in a crisis, governments can quickly adjust policies to keep people safe – as long as there is political will. 

Climate solutions benefit our health and our economy, making them ‘win–win–win’ actions 

Numerous approaches to climate action are already available and have the potential to deliver far-reaching benefits to people, planet and economies. Sustainable food systems, green energy sources, low carbon transport and urban infrastructural design are just some of the solutions already available to us. 

Climate justice is social justice. The same socioeconomic inequalities that climate change exacerbates can be reduced with good climate policies. Conversely, climate policies are more difficult to implement in areas with high inequality. 

 

Want more? 

The methods and means to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and to create a fairer, healthier future are here now. We know these climate solutions provide co-benefits to people and planet across sectors such as health, water, sanitation, agriculture, food systems, social protection systems, energy, housing, and employment sectors. The time for meaningful climate action is now. 

All this and more is set out in succinct, comprehensive detail in the two summary reports by the Climate and Health Alliance. Find more at www.caha.org.au/caha_reports

 

References 

1 Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA), Real, urgent & now: insights from health professionals on climate and health in Australia, CAHA website, 2021, accessed 17 May 2022. www.caha.org.au  

2 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate change 2022: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, IPCC website, 2022, accessed 17 May 2022. www.ipcc.ch/ 

3 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Climate change 2022: mitigation of climate change, IPCC website, 2022, accessed 17 May 2022. www.ipcc.ch/ 

4 Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA), Climate change is a health crisis: health messages from the IPCC sixth assessment report on climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, CAHA website, 2022, accessed 17 May 2022. www.caha.org.au  

5 Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA), Climate action for a healthy future: health messages from the IPCC sixth assessment report on mitigation of climate change, CAHA website, 2022, accessed 17 May 2022. www.caha.org.au 

6 ‘A commission on climate change’ [Editorial], Lancet, 2009, 373(9676):1659, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(09)60922-3

The Australian Primary Health Care Nurses Association acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.


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