Climate change is our greatest health challenge – we must act to protect future generations

Why are Australia’s doctors and health researchers pushing so hard for climate change action as we move towards a federal election?

Global warming is an unprecedented practical and ethical challenge to the health sector in Australia and around the world which demands urgent action.

I strongly believe that climate scientists need to report rising temperatures differently to really demonstrate the impact of the warming planet on all who live on it.

A rise of one to two degrees in mean global temperatures hides what can be dramatically higher daily temperatures at a local scale. Two degrees doesn’t sound as bad as it ought to!

But as an epidemiologist I prefer to study the increase in daily temperatures of, say, over 35C in population centres.

In Perth there were 28 days over 35C in summer in 2021 – that is predicted to rise to more than 40 days in 2036. Temperatures well over 40C are already becoming more common. The 2021/22 summer was the hottest on record.

The health and wellbeing of all Australians is under threat and the affects of warming are happening already, so we have no time for healthcare as usual. The health of young people – babies, children and future generations – will be most affected if we don’t act now.

As global temperatures and carbon dioxide levels continue to rise, Australia is experiencing longer, more frequent and more intense fire seasons.

In addition to models forecasting higher levels of extreme heat (as in Perth), we already have sea level rise (with serious erosion here and in the Pacific), air pollution, heavier rainfall, more serious floods, and more sand and dust storms – all of which have major health implications that are being felt by our communities.

This is contributing to a mental health crisis as Australians struggle to keep up with the ongoing deluge of severe weather events and displacement. Young people list fear of a future climate catastrophe at or near the top of their worries in surveys in Australia and globally.

You do not have to look far to see how these extreme weather events are already affecting the health of Australians. The devastating 2019/2020 bushfire season highlighted direct health affects such as respiratory and cardiovascular illness, heatstroke and heat stress, while the recent floods in Queensland and New South Wales continue to displace people and cause significant mental health concerns.

Perhaps most worrying is the affect climate change will have on future generations. Who has a duty of care to protect children from harm caused by climate change? And what about the increasing evidence that changes in climate and environmental degradation contribute to pandemics such as Covid?

It was disappointing to witness last month’s court of appeal ruling, which reversed a previous landmark case that found the Australian government had a legal duty to children when assessing fossil fuel projects. Disappointing because not only do children face a lifetime of potential harm from global warming, but they are also more vulnerable to the health effects of global warming than adults.

It seems that powerful industries – fossil fuel, tobacco, alcohol and sugar/fast foods – have much more influence on government decisions that affect our children than our careful research, which, if implemented, would vastly improve public health for all and reduce the need for expensive health expenditure in the future.

We know that heatwaves disproportionally affect children, while air pollution can cause respiratory illness, trigger allergies and potentially harm unborn babies.

At our current trajectory, the predicted level of global warming due to human activity will threaten the health and wellbeing of all the world’s population, disproportionally affecting people living in disadvantaged circumstances.

In Australia, climate change will exacerbate health inequities faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, while pregnant women and people with underlying health conditions also face greater health threats.

Australia’s top medical researchers and practitioners agree that climate change is the biggest health challenge of the 21st century. We must do all we can to mitigate this health crisis. Health should be a crucial consideration in all climate policy, and equally, climate change should play an important role in health policy.

The Australian government has committed to net zero emissions by 2050. But it has to clearly define how this will be achieved – and take steps to make a difference today. We are one of the only countries without a national centre for disease control, which should have climate change mitigation and adaptation as a main focus. Let’s lobby for this now!

Prof Fiona Stanley is a leading epidemiologist, founder of the Telethon Kids Institute, former Australian of the Year and honorary fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences. The AHMS statement on the health impacts of climate change can be found here

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