Climate and health: leading from the front

By Fiona Armstrong*
Tuesday, 23 January, 2018

Climate and health: leading from the front

The healthcare industry leads the way with seven recommendations to protect our community from climate change.

A nationwide consultation with healthcare stakeholders in 2016 revealed serious concerns: where was the national leadership required to address the serious and increasing public health risks posed by climate change?

While important actions are being taken at the state/territory and local level, a coordinated national effort is required to ensure that Australia is well prepared to protect the health and wellbeing of communities from the impacts of climate change.

As a result, in a world-first initiative, a coalition of leading health experts and organisations, along with federal parliamentarians, has launched the Framework for a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Well-being for Australia.

The framework was developed following a year-long national consultation to identify stakeholders’ priorities and concerns regarding the health impacts of climate change.

It provides a roadmap to support the Commonwealth Government in taking a leadership role in protecting the health and wellbeing of Australian communities from climate change, and in fulfilling its international obligations to human health under the Paris Agreement.

It also provides a policy framework against which Australia can demonstrate its progress against the Lancet Countdown indicators. Starting in 2017, the indicators will inform an annual global evaluation of nations’ responses to climate change, and the health benefits that emerge from the low-carbon transition.

The framework covers seven areas of policy action.

1. Health-promoting and emissions-reducing policies

This section highlights the many policies that can reduce the risks to people’s health and wellbeing while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions — these are win-win-win options. For example, reducing the proportion of electricity and transport reliant on fossil fuel combustion (ie, moving to clean, renewable energy for electricity rather than coal, and to electric vehicles charged from solar or wind power) can reduce air pollution in our cities and reduce the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular disease in the population.

2. Emergency and disaster preparedness

With climate change predicted to increase both the frequency and severity of extreme events such as storms, flooding and heatwaves for Australia, this highlights that protecting communities from the impacts of these events requires building the capacity of health and emergency services to identify vulnerabilities and to prepare and adequately respond.

3. Supporting healthy and resilient communities

Policies that enhance the capacities of community-based health and social service organisations and local governments to support communities in preparing for climate-related events and emergencies will minimise their impact on health and wellbeing. Healthy and resilient communities also require a healthy natural environment and thriving ecosystems.

4. Education and capacity building

While most Australians recognise that climate change is occurring, this area highlights that policies to educate and raise awareness of the health impacts of climate change are needed to build community resilience as well as within the health workforce.

5. Leadership and governance

The framework proposes governments work together vertically (local, state and federal) and horizontally (across portfolios) to tackle the health impacts of climate change. For example, one recommendation is the establishment a Ministerial Health and Climate Change Forum, consisting of Commonwealth and state/territory ministers with responsibility for health, environment and energy to oversee implementation, monitoring and reporting of the national strategy and reporting to COAG on progress.

6. A sustainable and climate-resilient health sector

International research suggests emissions from the health sector in Australia are between 4 and 8% of total national emissions. A low-carbon and environmentally sustainable health sector would reportedly deliver demonstrable economic, social and environmental benefits for Australia. This would help ensure Australia’s health sector can continue to deliver high-quality care while reducing exposure to climate risks.

7. Research and data

This policy area calls for the establishment of a substantive investment in climate and health research capacity to support effective responses to Australia’s specific climate-health threats, as well as supporting climate-health research in high-emitting, less-developed nations. This would ensure decision-making is informed by robust research and provide insight into specific climate change health threats, while supporting the identification of vulnerable communities, and effective strategies to respond.

The framework is already informing the development of policies in state and local government, and with the federal Opposition committing to the support the implementation of a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Well-being, the framework’s proponents are hoping for bipartisan support to see this comprehensive and world-leading national policy framework become a reality.

The framework is available at:

*Fiona Armstrong is Executive Director, Climate and Health Alliance.

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