“I can’t tell people to choose different air to breathe, or to choose different weather,” writes Dr Tim Senior in arguing, below, for a policy response to the health impacts of climate change. Worryingly, Dr Senior reports already seeing people in his own practice who have been affected by events linked to climate change and, by drawing on the government’s own research, he predicts that this is likely to become a much more serious problem in the future.
Unfortunately the political agenda appears to be focused myopically on “illness” policy problems – such as the rate of bulkbilling – but Dr Senior suggests some important reading material that could change the views of politicians and encourage them to address this significant and under-rated threat to the long term health of our community.
Dr Tim Senior writes:
As the re-elected government MPs take their seats around the cabinet table, they could be forgiven for believing health was a major issue in the election campaign. It wasn’t. People were rightly worried about cuts to Medicare and to our hospitals. These are certainly important, but they are more about treating illness than health. You’d expect that, in trying to ensure the sustainability of our health system, we’d look at one of the most important factors worsening our health.
What is that? Climate change. It’s impact on health is widely recognised in the health sector, with major medical journals regularly writing about the health impacts and opportunities from climate action. The AMA has been vocal on the issue, and both Doctors for the Environment and the Climate and Health Alliance have worked hard to bring the issue into public discussion.
Not just about temperature targets
It’s important to recognise the health effects of our changing climate. We’ve been fooled into thinking climate policy is only about temperature targets and percentages of renewable energy. We’ve been fooled into thinking that acting to reduce climate change has negative consequences, and the alternative is like now, only a bit warmer.
The government’s own predictions (available at http://www.climatechangeinaustralia.gov.au/) show that in the south east of Australia, we can be highly confident we will receive more intense extreme rainfall events and extreme sea level events. Those are precisely what caused such devastation on the south east coast during the recent federal election campaign, including my home town of Picton. There are obvious health consequences, in terms of injuries suffered, and the long-term impacts on mental health as people put their businesses and lives back together.
Increased risks for children and the elderly
There will be more days with high fire risk, and I’m reminded of bush fires a few years ago in the Blue Mountains, where more of my patients – especially children and the elderly – were coming in with severe coughs and difficulties breathing. If we don’t want to act on increased bush fire danger, then we’d better put some money aside for increased prescriptions of inhaler medications, and (very expensive) hospital admissions.
My patients already comment on the hot days and warm spells we’re currently seeing with our unseasonal weather changes. I already see the misery, not to mention increased time off work, associated with worsened allergies, as pollen patterns change. The increased death rates and hospital admissions always seen in heatwaves can be more difficult for an individual doctor to identify, but they are there and measurable when they have happened in France, in India and in Australia. To a government, those might be statistics, but to those involved, they are their elderly relatives, their children, their partners with mental health problems because the drought doesn’t break. These are their caring responsibilities and the extra stress and work they didn’t need.
So like many doctors, I am already seeing the effects of climate change in my patients, not experienced as an increased average global temperature, but as more sickness, as more time off work, as more caring for ill relatives.
The need for policy responses
The solutions require policy responses. I can’t tell people to choose different air to breathe, or to choose different weather.
Fortunately, the solutions to minimising and adapting to climate change also improve our health. Alternatively, if you wish, you could even enact policies to improve our health, improving our ability to work and care for our families, which coincidentally have a beneficial effect on climate change.
Power and transport
Two of the main examples would be in the way we generate power and in the way we transport ourselves.
The health consequences of mining and burning coal to generate power (black-lung in miners, increased respiratory and cardiovascular problems) have been clear for a long time. Renewables don’t carry these health risks.
There are many ways to change our transport systems to use less fuel, one of them being increased use of public transport in our cities, which has demonstrable effects on physical activity and obesity, compared with each of us using a car.
These policy responses don’t happen just by mentioning them. We have a lot to gain in improving our health and in acting properly on climate change, but we need to have a proper policy, a strategy, to achieve this.
The Climate and Health Alliance
The Climate and Health Alliance have started this off with their recently released discussion paper “Towards a national strategy on climate, health and well-being for Australia,” and invites all interested people and agencies to read it and contribute.
If I was the health minister, as my colleagues were getting comfortable around the cabinet table, I’d be giving each person a copy of this discussion paper, and telling them to read it. This is where regaining the trust of the electorate on health could start. Acting to minimise climate change is also the best and only way to start if we want a sustainable health system into the future.
*Dr Tim Senior is a GP who works in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, and a member of the Croakey Connective! You can follow him on Twitter at @timsenior.
The Climate and Health Alliance www.caha.org.au is leading a national consultation regarding the need for a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Well-being for Australia. In July 2016, CAHA released a Discussion Paper: Towards a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Well-being for Australia. In August 2016, CAHA will host the Climate, Health and Well-being Dialogue, a facilitated interactive discussion forum where participants can discuss the ideas proposed in the Discussion Paper, ask questions, share concerns, propose ideas, and identify priorities or a national public policy response to the health risks of climate change. To request an invitation to the Dialogue, visit: http://bit.ly/2a2bfSX
Readers who want to learn more about the health impacts of climate change might also be interested in a free public forum being hosted by the Social Determinants of Health Alliance on social determinants and climate change. Register here up until Thursday 4 August.