Climate change is our biggest health challenge – we must act to protect future generations | Professor Fiona Stanley
Why are Australian doctors and health researchers pushing so hard to act on climate change as we head towards a federal election?
Global warming is an unprecedented practical and ethical challenge to the health sector in Australia and around the world that demands urgent action.
I strongly believe that climatologists need to account for rising temperatures differently to truly demonstrate the impact of global warming on everyone who lives here.
A rise of one to two degrees in mean global temperatures hide considerably higher daily temperatures at the local scale. Two degrees doesn’t sound as bad as it should!
But as an epidemiologist, I prefer to study the increase in daily temperatures of, say, over 35°C in population centers.
In Perth, there were 28 days above 35°C in summer in 2021, which is expected to rise to over 40 days in 2036. Temperatures well above 40°C are already becoming more common. The summer of 2021/22 has been the hottest on record.
The health and wellbeing of all Australians is at risk and the effects of global warming are already happening, so there is no time for us to treat ourselves as usual. The health of young people – babies, children and future generations – will be most affected if we do not act now.
As global temperatures and carbon dioxide levels continue to rise, Australia is experiencing longer, more frequent and intense fire seasons.
In addition to models predicting higher levels of extreme heat (like in Perth), we already have sea level rise (with severe erosion here and in the Pacific), air pollution, higher rainfall heavy floods, more severe flooding and more sand and dust storms – all of which have major health impacts that are felt by our communities.
It’s contributing to a mental health crisis as Australians struggle to cope with the continued deluge of severe weather events and displacement. Young people list fear of future climate catastrophe at or near the top of their worries in surveys in Australia and around the world.
You don’t have to look far to see how these extreme weather events are already affecting the health of Australians. The devastating 2019/2020 bushfire season has highlighted direct health effects such as respiratory and cardiovascular disease, heat stroke and heat stress, while recent flooding in Queensland and New Wales South continue to displace people and cause significant mental health problems.
Perhaps most worrying is the effect that climate change will have on future generations. Who has the duty to protect children from the damage caused by climate change? And what about the growing evidence that climate change and environmental degradation contribute to pandemics like Covid?
It was disappointing to witness last month’s court of appeal ruling, which overturned a previous landmark case that found the Australian government had a legal duty to children when assessing fossil fuel projects. . Disappointing because not only do children face the potential damage of global warming for a lifetime, but they are also more vulnerable to the health effects of global warming than adults.
It seems that the powerful industries – fossil fuels, tobacco, alcohol and sugar/fast food – have far more influence over government decisions that affect our children than our careful research, which if implemented would dramatically improve the public health for all and reduce the need for costly health expenditures in the future.
We know that heat waves disproportionately affect children, while air pollution can cause respiratory illnesses, trigger allergies and potentially harm unborn babies.
At our current trajectory, the projected level of global warming due to human activity will threaten the health and well-being of all of the world’s population, disproportionately affecting those living in poor conditions.
In Australia, climate change will exacerbate health inequalities faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, while pregnant women and people with underlying health conditions also face greater threats. for their health.
Australia’s top researchers and medical practitioners agree that climate change is the greatest health challenge of the 21st century. We must do everything we can to mitigate this health crisis. Health should be a crucial consideration in any climate policy and, likewise, climate change should play an important role in health policy.
The Australian government has committed to net zero emissions by 2050. But it needs to be clear about how this will be achieved – and take action to make a difference today. We are one of the only countries that does not have a national center for disease control, which should focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation. Let’s push for it now!
Professor Fiona Stanley is a leading epidemiologist, founder of the Telethon Kids Institute, Australian Alumna of the Year and Honorary Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health Sciences and Medicine. The AHMS statement on the health impacts of climate change is available here