We really should have listened earlier: Linking livelihoods and climate change

  • Dry cracked field vs green field
University of Wollongong
Kathryn Weston, Associate Professor Public Health

Seventy years ago, on 22 May 1950, an article appeared in the Brisbane Courier Mail with the headline ‘Climate Change – World is Warming’. The article quoted the Director of the Museum of Technology and Applied Science, Mr AR Penfold, who warned of the evidence of global warming, including ocean levels rising, marked changes in the natural distribution of birds, animals and trees, and that house paint, despite improved quality, did not last as long. A year later, the CSIRO reported a world-wide survey showing a change in world climate.  The article reported that Australian scientists were undertaking experiments into methods of producing local weather changes, including artificial rain. How ironic that we believed at the time that scientists could solve this looming crisis, while now there are those who strenuously deny the views of world scientists about the impact of climate change on our world.

In 1953, William J Baxter, Head of New York’s International Economic Research Bureau, believed that while some countries might benefit from warmer or wetter weather, others would be devastated. He envisaged south-eastern Australia becoming a deserted zone caught in the centre of hot and dry spells. Japan, he said, would warm up to unpleasant levels. He further predicted that Japanese banks would be depleted of fish stocks, and Japan would ‘find herself without any food’.

Baxter’s prediction is reality. Little mention needs to be made of the devastation from the bushfires that recently ravaged a dry and hot south-eastern Australia, and in 2019, a report in the journal Science revealed that that the northeast Atlantic Ocean and the Sea of Japan have experienced significant declines in fish populations – as much as 35 per cent – due to ocean warming and over-fishing.

The direction of our thinking now needs to be towards linking health impacts of global warming to social needs and support, and changes to work patterns and maintaining viable livelihoods. Clearly, loss of livelihood for those at the forefront of food supply, such as primary producers, will place strain on personal and family standards of living including less adequate nutrition, or inability to purchase items of daily living. Moreover, the mental health conditions that arise from these changed circumstances may be evident in increased need for health care, increased risk of suicide, or the health impacts of moving to over-crowded urban areas with their unique health problems. Outdoor workers face increased risk of heat-related health issues if repeatedly exposed to ambient temperatures about threshold safety levels, but impact on productivity, safety and social wellbeing of workers are also critical to assess. People living and working in rural areas are particularly vulnerable with their inherent lack of access and equity in terms of health.

It appears difficult to find a way to bring this issue to the front of mind of those who do not appreciate the global impact of climate change. Maybe attention needs to turn to things that can touch a raw nerve. The much-loved Aussie farmer and other rural primary producers appear to be bearing a large burden in terms of their mental and physical health. Will their stories be enough to cause change in opinion?  The worldwide reliance on coffee is perhaps another way that naysayers can be shocked into reality.  Millions of small producers rely on the global trade in coffee, which is well-recognised as one of the most climate-sensitive crops. Maybe the promise of a world without coffee could be an effective reality check to increase awareness. Or could the trigger be the impact on the health of children into the future as they face greater climate-associated illnesses through family stress, natural disasters, and changing patterns of infectious disease?

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