Climate change and health in rural Australia

  • Larapinta trail bushfires
    Larapinta trail bushfires
  • Larapinta trail bushfires
    Larapinta trail bushfires

Photos: Rosalie Schultz

How has climate change affected you, your community and your workplace?

Bushfires have devastated much of the Larapinta Trail near my home in Alice Springs. Our weekend retreat was ablaze for several weeks, and is now a mosaic of ash, fallen logs, and singed and charred trees, intermingled with remaining unburnt patches.

No-one was injured and the infrastructure appears to have been remarkably preserved. However favourite sites and sections are incinerated. I feel grief and sorrow at loss of beauty, but also fear for destruction of ecosystems and the contribution of these fires to ongoing invasion of the region by weeds. Tourism, an important industry in central Australia, may slump as people decide to holiday elsewhere and it is likely that some operators will suffer financial loss and associated stresses. People may leave the region forever.

Fires are occurring across the country, often in regions that have never burnt before: Tasmanian rainforests, and the ancient karri forest of south-west Western Australia. Climate change is causing longer and more extreme fire seasons, which are stretching our firefighting resources.

In Hobart recently, bushfire smoke caused levels of air pollution higher than some of the most polluted cities in the world. Air pollution – coming from bushfires, burning fossil fuels and other sources – causes increase in heart disease, respiratory disease, asthma, low birthweight babies and premature death.

In the last few months we have seen impacts of climate change throughout the country – heatwaves gripping most of Australia in January, devastating floods in Townsville, drought in New South Wales. January 2019 was Australia’s hottest month ever recorded. Heatwaves cause the most deaths of any natural disaster, with groups like the elderly, children, those with chronic disease, and outdoor workers the most vulnerable to dehydration, heat stress and potentially fatal heatstroke.

Climate change presents many threats to health and wellbeing: from physical impacts like dehydration and injury; mental health effects such as grief, depression and anxiety; and social and community disruption.

Rural health practitioners are at the frontline of these climate impacts, and often we are directly affected ourselves. We have responsibilities and opportunities to act at many levels: with the patients we see every day, the communities we’re a part of, and wider society and institutions.

We can work to ensure that our patients are prepared for fires, heatwaves and extreme weather events; that they are prepared practically, socially and emotionally. We can be part of building resilient communities, better able to adapt to the growing challenges posed by climate change. There are many win-win solutions, such encouraging people to walk, cycle, and use and advocate for better public transport systems. These offer direct benefits to health as well as reducing emissions.

We also have a responsibility to tackle the root cause of climate change – rising greenhouse gas emissions caused primarily by burning fossil fuels. Health practitioners have a trusted voice, and we can influence our leaders and drive large scale action to slow climate change.  

All these issues will be explored during the workshop on climate change and rural health at the National Rural Health Conference (Hobart 24-27 March 2019). We will share stories, explore issues, and build capacity and leadership for action on climate change.

Dr Rosalie Schultz is a GP and public health physician based in Alice Springs, and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia which will lead a workshop on Climate change and health at the 15th National Rural Health Conference.

 

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