The costs of climate change are already upon us. We must prepare for the next emergency.

  • Emergency building
By
Australasian College for Emergency Medicine
Dr Laksmi Govindasamy, Dr Kimberly Humphrey and Dr Lai Heng Foong, Members of the Public Health and Disaster Committee
Issue
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The climate crisis is a health emergency because it poses an existential threat to the systems upon which our society and our lives depend. We won’t waste time reiterating the evidence for anthropogenic climate change, and connecting the climate crisis to health has been done. We want to focus on practical solutions to support rural communities to be better prepared for future climate-related health emergencies.

The climate crisis is a significant rural health problem because climate change disproportionately affects rural communities. Many rural communities already face major socioeconomic challenges and their economies are more vulnerable to changes in the environment. Climate change is fundamentally a health equity issue as those with fewer resources are least able to compensate for changes to our environment.

This summer the inextricably linked problems of prolonged drought and bushfires have borne down on communities across Australia. Although major cities have suffered through the impacts of bushfire smoke, it is our rural communities that face the traumatic burden of these emergencies, including their ongoing recovery and rebuild efforts.

Many readers know this intimately. You are working tirelessly to support your communities, continuing to provide services, even as you and your families have been directly affected. Despite your exhaustion and sorrow, we prevail upon you to persevere, to adapt, but also to work towards mitigation. Unfortunately, as recent storms and COVID-19 outbreak demonstrate, emergencies won’t wait for us to catch our breath. When the next disaster occurs, we must be prepared.

As part of this preparation, all health services should have an Emergency Management Plan that is annually reviewed. This must demonstrate a working knowledge of the health impacts of climate change, including the management of increased presentations, evacuation and working with state disaster responses. This summer is a precursor to what could become our new normal. It is also essential that we are a voice for prevention and mitigation, by calling for a just transition to renewables and a substantially decreased carbon footprint, even as we support our communities to prepare and adapt.

As doctors we have a duty to use our power and privilege to advocate for health, and to speak up about the social inequities that undermine it. We can and must play a similar role in demanding climate action and sufficient resources to manage climate-related emergencies. This includes boosting rural health workforce as much as physical infrastructure. There is a chronic shortage of rural health workers, which means many rural communities are already underserved.  This is only exacerbated by emergency events that contribute to trauma, stress and burnout in the existing workforce. Efforts to support rural clinicians through respite locums are a fantastic clinician-led initiative. We must also demand our politicians invest in sustained incentives to attract and retain rural health workforce.

As trusted voices in the community, clinicians must continually re-earn this trust.

Climate change may seem to be beyond the purview of your typical clinical role, and many of us might prefer to remain apolitical members of our communities. But we undermine our legitimacy when we fail to respond accurately and rapidly to evolving health crises. It is our duty to be at the forefront communicating the facts of the climate emergency. Too many Australians do not understand the underlying science of climate change, nor realise the urgency, scale and implications for their health. We have a responsibility to include this information alongside our advocacy role for our patients and community.

There should be nothing political about connecting climate change to health. This link is factual and evidenced based, and not partisan or ideological. We urge you to get involved in the climate advocacy work of your college or organisations like Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) and start these conversations with your patients, colleagues, and local community leaders. Join a community action group and demand more renewables, more health resources and help strengthen resilience in your community. There is so much we can do.

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