Health sector urged to lead climate action

Tuesday, 19 October, 2021

Health sector urged to lead climate action

Australia needs to frame climate change as a health issue first and foremost, according to Australian researchers.

Heat (as well as air pollution) is a good starting point for such a conversation, as the public has first-hand experience of its effects, according to the authors of a Perspective published by the Medical Journal of Australia.

“As trusted voices, health leaders can lead a public conversation to convey the links between climate change, heatwaves and heat- related deaths, which are more tangible than for many other climate, environment and health issues. Public health leaders, in particular, can also use heat health examples to speak about the underlying social determinants of health and their impact in different groups, making clear the importance of equity and the inseparability of climate health from climate justice,” the authors wrote.

Dr Tarun Weeramanthri, President of the Public Health Association of Australia, and colleagues said that the recent exceptional heatwave in North America’s Pacific Northwest region was “as dramatic and shocking as the bushfires in eastern Australia over the summer of 2019–2020”.

As the driest inhabited continent, Australia is highly vulnerable to the impacts of global warming, they wrote.

“Long-term meteorological data show an incremental and progressive rise in surface, ocean and atmospheric temperatures, with the climate warming on average by 1.4C since 1910. The year 2019 was the hottest in Australia’s history, and each decade since 1980 has been warmer than the last.”

Weeramanthri and colleagues said that Australia had four obligations in regard to global climate change action:

  • “We have an absolute obligation to behave as responsible global citizens and join with other countries to urgently reduce carbon emissions and limit global warming to less than 1.5C;
  • “[The Australian health sector] needs to be a leader in climate mitigation and, in coming years, the health sector will need to decarbonise at least as fast as other sectors. If we lag behind, this will increase the burden on other sectors;
  • “To be effective advocates, we need to continue to frame climate change as a health issue, first and foremost; and,
  • “All levels of government (national, state and local) should have a defined role as for other hazards. Early warning systems should be linked to local heat health action plans that identify specific settings.

“We need to take note of the science and real-world evidence before our eyes, urgently reduce emissions, and prepare for further such events in a planned way that prioritises equity and takes into account our specific circumstances and risks,” the authors concluded.

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