Climate Change and Australia's Healthcare System - Risks, Research and Responses

Article excerpt

Abstract. Climate change will affect human health, mostly adversely, resulting in a greater burden on the health care system, in addition to any other coexistent increases in demand (e.g. from Australia's increasingly ageing population). Understanding the extent to which health is likely to be affected by climate change will enable policy makers and practitioners to prepare for changing demands on the health care system. This will require prioritisation of key research questions and building research capacity in the field. There is an urgent need to better understand the implications of climate change for the distribution and prevalence of diseases, disaster preparedness and multidisciplinary service planning. Research is needed to understand the relationship of climate change to health promotion, policy evaluation and strategic financing of health services. Training of health care professionals about climate change and its effects will also be important in meeting long-term workforce demands.

Climate change

The science of climate change has been consistently reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),1 the major national academies of science around the world, and in leading peer-reviewed scientific journals. The average global surface temperature has increased by ~0.74°C (0.56 ± 0.92°C) over the past 100 years.1 This warming, especially since 1950, has been attributed primarily to increased output of the greenhouse gases generated by human activities, including increased use of fossil fuels and changes in land use and agriculture.1 Despite several recent acknowledged errors in the IPCC 2007 Assessment Report (e.g. the projected rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers2), the fundamental conclusions of the report, based on extensive international scientific literature, remain robust.

Globally, changes in climate are expected to result in variability in temperatures, precipitation rates, wind patterns and extreme weather events (e.g. droughts, tropical storms, heat events etc.), subject to regional variation.1 Further unavoidable warming is expected due both to inertia in the climate system and the continuing rise in greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, emission levels are currently tracking along the highest estimates in most existing models.3 Future warming and other climatic changes will depend on choices, decisions and behaviours made by governments and communities over coming years and decades.

In Australia over the coming decades, climate models indicate that temperatures will increase and rainfall will become more variable. This variation and fluctuation in weather patterns will have a predominantly detrimental effect on agriculture.4 Severe storms, bushfires and droughts are all predicted to increase as a result of these changing conditions.4 Heat events and hot spells are likely to increase in frequency, and the changes in temperature and precipitation are predicted to affect seasonality and prevalence of infectious diseases.5

Health risks of climate change

Climate change already contributes to the world's burden of disease and is likely to have greatest impact on the poorest populations in the world, exacerbating poverty and working against attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.6 Arecent review of the health impacts of climate change published in The Lancet projects increased mortality from directly or indirectly related climate change events, including malnutrition, cardio-respiratory disease, diarrhoeal disease and changes in distribution of infectious disease pathogens.7

The size and diversity of landscapes in Australia means that the risks to health will not be uniform across the country, with some particular hotspots such as south-east Australia (drought and fire risks), south-west Australia (reduced precipitation) and coastal Queensland (risks of coastal inundation).4 Changes in patterns and risks of infectious diseases will also vary by geography, regional climate and topography. …