Health Missing From the Climate Story

In all the to and fro of the current carbon pricing debate here in Australia, one important aspect of the story on climate action is missing.

Why are we acting on climate change? Well, because of the evidence that it poses risks to the global economy, to infrastructure, and to our natural environment. All that is true and makes for a compelling case for action. But at its very core – climate change is a health issue.

It places the safety and wellbeing of our species in jeopardy. Climate change is already responsible for the deaths of more than 300,000 people each year.[1] Five million more deaths are expected during the next decade if no effective action is taken to reduce climate risk.[2]  Over 80% of the disease burden attributable to climate change falls on children.[3]

The international medical journal The Lancet outlined the stark facts in 2009: that the effects of climate change from global warming “puts the lives and wellbeing of billions of people at increased risk”.

Climate change presents serious immediate and long term threats to the health and wellbeing of the Australian and global population.

The direct health effects of climate change include deaths, injury, and hospitalisation associated with increasingly frequent and intense bushfires, cyclones, storms and floods, and heatwaves.[4] Indirect effects include increases in infectious and vector borne diseases, worsening chronic illness, and health risks from poor water quality and food insecurity.[5]

Health care services in Australia are already experiencing dramatic increases in service demand from climate related events, such as heatwaves and floods.[6],[7] The heatwave that preceded the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009 saw a 62% increase in mortality from heat related illnesses and worsening chronic medical conditions. During this five day event, there was a 46% increase in demand for ambulances; an eight-fold increase in heat related presentations to emergency departments; a 2.8 fold increase in cardiac arrests; and a threefold increase in patients dead on arrival.[8]

So there are many compelling reasons to act on climate change from the point of view of reducing health risks. This story is missing however from the policy debate – it is missing in the explanations from our leaders about why we must act, it is missing from the narrative of many advocacy groups who imagine that a threat to polar bears will be sufficient to elicit support for action. This is not proving to be the case.

Health is not only one of the most compelling reasons to act on climate change – its actually one of the reasons most people will feel compelled to act on climate change, because framing climate change as a health issue is one of the ways we can best appeal to people’s individual assessment of risk from climate change. Put in a health context, people are far more inclined to consider climate change as an issue that affects them

And there are many health gains possible from climate action. Reducing our reliance on energy supply from coal and encouraging shifts in transport away from fossil-fuel-guzzling cars to public transport will reduce air pollution, improve social capital and bring concurrent increases in activity which, in turn, all help reduce obesity, osteoporosis, heart disease and diabetes, not to mention road traffic injuries and deaths.

Shifting away from coal as a fuel source for electricity will improve air quality and reduce related deaths from lung cancer and heart disease. Switching to low emissions and more active transport systems can significantly improve air quality and reduce respiratory disease, as well as cut the incidence of obesity, chronic illness and cardiovascular disease. Changing to a diet with lower meat consumption can cut emissions from livestock production as well reduce heart disease and diabetes.[9]

The economic argument for the health benefits of climate action is also very strong: a recent report from the European Union reveals significant health and economic benefits are associated with strong targets for emissions reductions, with a target of 30% reduction by 2020 expected to deliver health care savings from avoided ill health of €80 billion per year.[10]

Effective action on climate change has the potential to significantly reduce the health costs (both economic and social) we will face in the next decade and the coming century. It’s also an important way to build public support for action [11]. If our political leaders were serious about building public support (and acting in the national interest), they would be talking about addressing “the biggest threat to global health of the 21st century”,[12] not talking about compensating polluting industries. That needs to change.

[1] Vidal, J. Global warming causes 300,000 deaths a year,, 29 May 2009.

[2] DARA, Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2010: The state of the climate crisis, December 2010.

[3] Sheffield, P. and Landrigan, P. Global Climate Change and Children’s Health: Threats and Strategies for Prevention,

Environmental Health Perspectives , Volume 119 | Number 3 | March 2011.

[4] McMichael, A. J., and Butler, C. Climate change and human health: recognising the really inconvenient truth, Medical Journal of Australia, Volume 191, No. 11/12, December 2009.

[5] Nicholls, N. Climate science: how the climate is changing and why (and how we know it), Discussion Paper, National Climate Change Adaptation Facility, August 2009.

[6] Carthey, J., Chandra, V., Loosemore, M. Adapting Australian health facilities to cope with climate-related extreme weather events, Journal of Facilities Management, 7:1, pp.36-51.

[7] Victorian Government Department of Human Services, January 2009 Heatwave in Victoria: An assessment of health impacts, 2009, Melbourne.

[8] ibid

[9] The Lancet, Executive Summary, Health and Climate Change Series, November 2009.

[10] Health and Environment Alliance and Health Care Without Harm Europe, Acting Now for Better Health, Report, August 2010.

[11] Maibach, et al. BMC Public Health, 2010, 10:299.

[12] Costello A, Abbas M, Allen A, et al. Managing the health effects of climate change. Lancet 2009; 373: 1693-1733.