Climate change threatens the health and wellbeing of rural Australians

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Climate change is already causing injuries, disease and premature deaths in humans. This will worsen as temperatures continue to rise.

Most obviously, climate change and global warming harm human health through the increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events such as heat waves (and bushfires), droughts, floods and cyclones. Many rural Australians in both coastal and inland areas have experienced such events and the health, social and economic consequences for families and communities. Farming communities in particular have noticed the changing weather patterns and seasons and their effects on crops and livestock, and the flow-on to family and community incomes and mental health.

Changing weather patterns can also increase the distribution and prevalence of infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue that are spread by mosquitoes. Many people in rural areas work outdoors and are at risk of decreased work capacity and even heat stress as temperatures rise.

Within rural areas some people will be more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than others. These include socioeconomically disadvantaged people, people with disabilities, remote Indigenous communities, older people, pregnant women, children, and even tourists.

When a disaster happens we expect to be able to turn to health professionals and health services for help. But hospitals and health facilities are themselves vulnerable to extreme weather events. Even if they aren’t directly damaged or destroyed, they may lose power, freshwater or sewage services, and it may be difficult for staff and supplies to reach the hospital if roads are blocked by debris, floodwater or fires.

The principal cause of climate change is the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas – mostly in the last 50 years. As with poverty, poor housing, unemployment and racial discrimination, climate change results from the decisions and actions of society at large – it is a social determinant of health. That’s the bad news: we’ve caused it. The good news is that we can stop it. But the situation is serious and getting worse rapidly, and there is an urgent need for action now.

There are two broad strategies to combat climate change. First, we must reduce emissions. stop the continuing increase in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 and reduce emissions by 45 per cent by 2030. This is called mitigation. Second, we must prepare society, communities, families and health services for the inevitable effects of climate change so that they are better able to respond and recover when disaster hits. This is called adaptation. Health workers and health services have roles to play in both of these strategies.

Health services can focus on three activities: 1) reducing their own carbon footprint (Australia’s health services contribute seven per cent of our total carbon emissions) by reducing energy consumption, using renewable energy sources and using less carbon intensive models of patient care; 2) conducting a risk assessment of their vulnerability to climate change and their preparedness to respond; and 3) developing an environmental sustainability plan for the service, allocating resources to implementing the plan, and involving staff members.

Health professionals are highly respected community members and individuals can be champions for action in their professional and personal lives. At work, they can ensure that environmental sustainability is incorporated in clinical decision making (and educational curriculums). Privately they can donate to environmental groups, write to Members of Parilament, participate in peaceful demonstrations, and ensure their superannuation funds are not invested in fossil fuel companies.

We know the consequences of ignoring climate change and how to tackle it. We have the technologies and economic resources needed to do it. Rural health workers can help build the community and political will to make it happen.

For more practical ideas for action, see: Climate and Health Alliance, Global Green and Healthy Hospitals: (Andrew Phillips wrote about Green and healthy hospitals and health services in Partyline #62, March 2018), and the NHS England Sustainable Development Unit.

Peter Sainsbury was a keynote speaker at the 15th National Rural Health Conference, Hobart 24-27 March 2019. Peter is Past President, Public Health Association of Australia and the Climate and Health Alliance and was, until his retirement in 2016, Director of Population Health in South Western Sydney Local Health District.


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