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

By Weaver, Haylee J.; Blashki, Grant A. et al. | Australian Health Review, November 2010 | Go to article overview

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


Weaver, Haylee J., Blashki, Grant A., Capon, Anthony G., McMichael, Anthony J., Australian Health Review


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.8 The risk of a massive flow of environmental refugees from the Asia Pacific region needs to be contemplated as part of health service planning. How these and other changes may lead to health effects for Australia is outlined in Box 1.

Research on climate change and health

Momentum in this field is increasing, with the topics of climate and health, and climate change-related health research becoming increasingly more common amongst Australian health researchers. 9 That number is growing steadily and is supplemented by reports and associated grey literature, produced by government departments and NGOs (see Steffen,10 for example). In 2009, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC, http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/your_health/issues/climate_change. htm) included climate change and health as a priority research area for the first time. The health impacts of climate change are also becoming more prominent in the policy arena. In 2008, the Western Australian Government was the first state to commission a Health Impact Assessment11 to identify the potential health risks posed by climate change. …

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