The Federal Government’s failure to address the growing health impacts of climate change is putting Australian lives at risk, a major new report warns.
Writing today in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), health experts say Australia is falling behind comparable countries because we have no national plan to tackle the health impacts of a warming planet.
That’s despite a “clear and present need”, with Australians facing continuing increases in maximum summer temperatures, heatwave intensity and bushfire risk.
The report, titled the 2020 MJA-Lancet Countdown, is the latest assessment of Australia’s progress in tackling climate change and its effects on health.
This year’s report focuses on Australia’s 2019-20 catastrophic “Black Summer” and the relationship between health, climate change and bushfires.
“Australians are already suffering the deadly health impacts of climate change, and the Australian government is exposing them to further harm by failing to address climate change,” said Ying Zhang, co-chair of the MJA-Lancet Countdown.
Climate change has been declared a health emergency by leading medical bodies in Australia and around the world.
Today’s report was released alongside a major international report on climate change and human health, published in leading medical journal The Lancet, which says that unless urgent action is taken, climate change will increasingly threaten global health and overwhelm healthcare systems.
Following the release of the report, a coalition of health bodies, including the Australian Medical Association and Royal Australasian College of Physicians, have called for urgent policy reform to safeguard Australians’ health from climate impacts.
Their policy recommendations include developing a national climate change and health strategy, supporting communities vulnerable to climate disasters and accelerating Australia’s transition to renewable energy.
The calls for action come just a month after a group of more than 700 Australian doctors wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison to accuse the Coalition Government of failing to protect Australians from the impacts of climate change.
Australia already feeling the effects
The report states Australians have already experienced more intense heatwaves, altered patterns of infectious disease and food insecurity driven by a changing climate.
Last year was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record, which resulted in unprecedented bushfires — the intensity and duration of which can be directly linked to climate change, said Paul Beggs, environmental scientist and co-chair of the MJA-Lancet Countdown.
“Lack of action on climate change is really putting the health of Australians at risk, and the bushfires earlier this year were a perfect example of that,” Dr Beggs said.
“As temperatures continue to increase … the risk of bushfires is increasing, and that’s having a huge impact on human health.”
Last summer’s bushfires — which spanned 10 million hectares and destroyed more than 3,000 homes — caused the deaths of 450 people through either direct injury or exposure to air pollution.
Smoke from the bushfires, which blanketed Australia’s major cities for several weeks, resulted in record levels of air pollution, which led to a spike in hospital presentations for asthma and respiratory conditions.
The report found that Australia has experienced one of the greatest increases in fire risk globally. But bushfires and air pollution aren’t the only climate-change-related events to have serious physical and mental health consequences.
“We are a land of climate extremes and variability — so we tend to go from these very hot, dry years, to very wet years where we have opposite problems: flooding and so on,” Dr Beggs said.
Current climate efforts ‘inadequate’
In the face of escalating climate health impacts, the report says that Australia’s current efforts to mitigate climate change through its energy system are “inadequate”.
Australia is the only OECD country to have worsened the carbon intensity of its energy supply over the past three decades, which is now 36 per cent higher than the global average.
“We are certainly lagging behind in terms of our transition to renewable energy,” Dr Beggs said.
Despite some growth in wind and solar power, Australia continues to rely heavily on coal, said Dr Beggs, who added that Australia had to be “careful” it didn’t fall behind other countries in its response to climate change too.
“I think we’ll see fairly rapid movement in the US after the recent election. China is also moving very rapidly in terms of renewable energy,” he said.
“We don’t want to be lagging behind the rest of the world … otherwise the health and economic impacts are going to be even greater than we forecast at the moment.”
The report commended the leadership of states and territories, all of whom have a climate change adaptation plan that includes the health sector in some way. But the authors lamented the fact Australia still lacks a national climate change adaptation plan for health.
“We can’t just have the states taking responsibility for this major issue,” Dr Beggs said.
“The bushfires were a perfect example of showing us that we need coordination across every level of government in Australia when it comes to issues like climate change and health.”
The report noted that “continued reluctance to acknowledge the threats posed by climate change at the federal level” had hindered progress of bushfire prevention and planning.
“Even as the fires played out, the Federal Government was slow to form any national response,” the authors wrote.
COVID-19 recovery offers opportunity
To avoid the worst health impacts of climate change and meet the United Nations climate change agreement and limit warming to “well below 2 degrees celsius”, global emissions must rapidly decline over the next 10 years, the report warns.
To help achieve this, Australia should use its economic recovery to COVID-19 as an opportunity to promote investments in renewable energy systems and sustainable infrastructure, Dr Beggs said.
“The way we respond to COVID-19 is going to have an impact on how we can deal with climate change,” he said.
“In terms of the stimulus packages that are being put in place … we need to think very carefully about those to see if they can address both issues at the same time — so not only the impacts of COVID-19, but also the impacts of climate change on human health.
“We can really be sensible with the way we allocate economic resources so that we not only get the Australian economy back on track, but also address climate change at the same time.”
Australia is due to revise its emissions target ahead of the next United Nations Conference of Parties (COP26) in November 2021.
In an accompanying policy brief published alongside the report, the authors note that the policies relating to this and COVID-19 recovery will “come to define the health of societies for decades”.
In addition to better preparing and supporting communities affected by climate disasters, and developing a national climate change and health strategy, Dr Beggs said accelerating the transition to renewable energy was “the major thing” Australia needs to do.
“That’s really the number one thing we need to do — move away from reliance on coal and natural gas, and really accelerate the use of renewable energy such as solar and wind power,” he said.
“The impacts of that are not only to reduce the extent of climate change and therefore reduce the impacts on health, but also to improve local air quality as well.”