2 November 2022
As floods continue inundating communities across Australia, a coalition of peak medical bodies and experts has warned of mounting pressure from climate change-related health impacts on strained healthcare systems.
The warning comes with the release of the 2022 report of the MJA-Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, a multi-disciplinary research collaboration that conducts annual assessments of Australia’s progress in tackling climate change and its health impacts.
This year’s review confirms Australians’ health is being jeopardised by increasing exposure to extreme fire danger, life-threatening heat, and severe drought; and more people are being displaced by weather-related disasters. It also found that Australia’s health system capacity had deteriorated over the study period.
“In this year’s study there’s a very concerning combination of findings for Australia: increasing climate-related health threats, and indicators of reduced health system capacity,” said Macquarie University’s Associate Professor Paul Beggs, lead author of this year’s report.
“We found numerous mounting risks to Australians’ health from fires, floods, drought, and heat. Worryingly, we also found that, for the first time since we began tracking, Australia’s health emergency management capacity has fallen.”
In response, The Medical Journal of Australia, the Lancet Countdown, the Australian Medical Association (AMA), The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP), the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association, the Public Health Association of Australia, the Australian College of Nursing, and the Australian Medical Students’ Association, have all called for a suite of policy measures to help safeguard Australians’ health from climate impacts.
Key policy recommendations from the Countdown coalition include developing health and climate change plans at all levels of government; more consistently aligning government energy policies with the goals of the Paris Agreement; and incorporating environmental sustainability principles in an upcoming update of the Australian Dietary Guidelines.
The coalition has also welcomed the Federal Government’s recent budget commitment of $3.4 million over 4 years to develop a National Climate and Health Strategy and establish a National Health Sustainability and Climate Unit.
“Since coming into office, the government has taken very promising steps on climate and health, and we commend them on their more ambitious emissions reduction targets, and on their recent budget commitments. But the Countdown findings demand further urgent policy responses, and we urge the government to act on the recommendations without delay,” said Associate Professor Beggs.
Royal Australasian College of Physicians President, Dr Jacqueline Small: “The flood devastation across Australia forewarns increased frequency and intensity of all extreme weather events as a consequence of climate change. This is both an immediate and long-term reality. We urge the federal government to move with urgency and ambition on plans for a national climate change, health and wellbeing strategy. It's long overdue and the longer we wait the less harm we will prevent."
Australian Medical Association President, Professor Steve Robson: “We are experiencing poorer health outcomes from increasing climate disasters, however, there is still time to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change for the next generation. I ask policy makers to read this report and to act urgently on its recommendations. We congratulate the federal government on its initiative to establish a National Health Sustainability and Climate Unit and a National Health and Climate Strategy announced in last week’s budget.”
MJA-Lancet Countdown Co-Chair & University of Sydney Associate Professor Ying Zhang: “Australian people are increasingly concerned with climate change and health issues, despite the disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic. More investment in building a climate-resilient health system is crucial. I hope to see more committed leadership from the Australian Government at the forthcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27).” NB: COP27 commences on Sunday 6 November in Egypt.
MJA-Lancet Countdown co-author & Australian National University Professor Hilary Bambrick: “The fires and floods over the last few years have shown us that need to be much better prepared for climate change to protect the health and wellbeing of people and communities. Given that the planet is still warming, these extreme events have merely been a prelude.
Australia’s emergency management capacity declined over the past few years. Lacklustre planning, response and communications during the March floods in northern NSW meant it was left to neighbours and community organisations to step up to rescue and provide essential support. We are really going to have to lift our game to if we’re going to flourish, or even survive, what the climate will deal out in coming years and decades.
Australia is taking positive steps to both prepare for an increasingly hostile climate, and to reduce the emissions that contribute to warming the planet, however progress remains painfully and unnecessarily slow. In a land with abundant renewable energy, we’re inexplicably still seeing approvals for coal and gas expansion. Any expansion of fossil fuel is not at all compatible with limiting global warming to well below 2C – the commitment made at the 2015 climate negotiations in Paris.
In 2020, more than 52000 people in Australia were displaced by weather-related disasters, mostly fires and floods. Repeat extreme events at shortening intervals highlights the impacts that climate change is having on our mental health, with people and communities not only having to cope with the trauma and loss from a single event, but also the cumulative impacts of multiple events and with no recovery time in between. We’re also seeing the massive financial burden that climate change is now bringing to households, with increasing insurance costs and some areas becoming uninsurable.
Given the scale of the impacts that we’re already seeing – across vast areas and state borders and over long periods of time, planning and response can’t be left to individual states and territories – we well overdue for a national approach that recognises the scale and complexity of the impacts, which includes cross-jurisdictional information and resource sharing.”
About the MJA-Lancet Countdown: The MJA-Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change is a multi-disciplinary research collaboration that provides annual updates on Australia’s progress in tackling climate change and its health impacts. It was established in 2017.
Read the full report here