Climate change threat to future health is growing

The mounting risks to human health in Australia due to climate change require urgent government action, say the authors of the 2019 MJA-Lancet Countdown report.

The report, published in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), found that although some progress has been achieved in renewable energy generation – including substantial employment increases in the sector, and at state and local government levels – there continues to be no engagement on health and climate change at a federal level.

“Health impacts of climate change include heat illness, asthma, heart disease, injuries, mosquito-borne diseases and diarrhoea,” Monash Sustainable Development Institute Director Professor Tony Capon, senior author of the report, said. “Climate change has even been linked to depression.

“The bushfires currently devastating the nation’s eastern seaboard signal the need for urgent action.

“Human health will improve as we pursue pathways to net zero emissions. Cleaner air, healthier diets and safer, more walkable cities will benefit our physical and mental health, and yield increases in worker productivity and savings in healthcare costs.”

The report outlines extensive health damage from climate change, and sets out the lifelong consequences of rising temperatures for a child born today should the world follow a business-as-usual pathway.

Key findings include:

  • As temperatures rise, infants will be vulnerable to the burden of malnutrition and rising food prices – the average yield potential of wheat, the major winter crop in Australia, has declined five per cent since the 1960s.
  • Children will be among those to most suffer from the rise in infectious diseases – 2018 was the second most climatically suitable year on record for the spread of bacteria that cause much of diarrhoeal disease and wound infection globally.
  • Throughout adolescence, the impact of air pollution will worsen – with Australia accounting for about a third of the world’s coal trade, the carbon intensity of Australia’s primary energy supply is the highest of high-income countries, with coal accounting for about 65 per cent of electricity generation.
  • Dangerous levels of outdoor fine-particulate air pollution (PM2.5) contributed to 2800 premature deaths (two per cent of all deaths) in Australia in 2016.
  • Extreme weather events will intensify into adulthood – maximum summer temperatures in Australia are 1.66C warmer than 20 years ago, with the intensity of heatwaves rising by a third, increasing the dangers to human health, and a potential 1.35 million additional hours of work lost due to extreme heat in 2018 compared with 2000.
  • Pursuing the Paris Agreement pathway to limit warming to well below 2C could allow a child born today to grow up in a world that reaches net zero emissions by their 31st birthday, and secure a healthier future for coming generations.

The report’s authors have called for the health impacts of climate change to be at a priority on the agenda at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December.

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