More than 30 prominent health organisations have called on the federal government to address the health impacts of climate change in its upcoming National Preventive Health Strategy.
The strategy’s consultation paper — which is open for feedback until September 28 — does not mention climate change at all. But the health groups have argued that climate change “must be a central feature” of the strategy.
“The goal of the National Preventive Health Strategy should be to tackle the systems that undermine positive health and wellbeing. These include social, environmental, commercial and political determinants of health,” they said in a joint statement on Tuesday.
“As with unhealthy food, pharmaceuticals, tobacco, and alcohol, it is critical that the role of vested interests in relation to climate change is identified as undermining efforts to prevent illness and promote health and wellbeing.
“A National Preventive Health Strategy that is fit for purpose in the 21st century must address climate change — or it will fail in its objectives.”
Among the 32 groups are the Australian Health Promotion Association, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, and the Australian Association of Social Workers.
They noted that climate change can directly impact health due to the increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as prolonged heatwaves, floods and bushfires, and indirectly through worsening air quality, changes in the spread of infectious diseases, risks to food safety and drinking water quality, and effects on mental health.
“The negative health impacts of climate change range from impacts on every human organ system, to disruption of the healthcare supply chain, damage to health infrastructure and threats to the safety and quality of care,” they said.
“Preventing deaths, illnesses and injuries associated with climate change requires leadership from governments to tackle the root causes of climate change, support the health sector and the health professions to build climate resilience, and ensure the community is well informed and capable of taking health protective actions.”
Public Health Association of Australia chief executive officer Terry Slevin said Australia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including drought.
“The health impacts caused by climate change are far-reaching and of great concern, whether we are talking about increasing bushfires and heatwaves or disrupted food and water supplies; we can’t have a healthy population without a healthy planet,” he said.
The organisations warned that if action is not taken to address climate change, it could cause 85 deaths per 100,000 people globally per year by the end of the century, making it a bigger killer than all infectious diseases.
Researchers from the University of Melbourne have also found that over the next 30 years, increasing economic damages from climate change will cost the Australian economy at least $1.89 trillion (roughly 4% of projected GDP each year) if current emissions policies continue.
Consumers Health Forum CEO Leanne Wells suggested policy on climate and health be guided by science — like the COVID-19 response. Meanwhile, Climate and Health Alliance executive director Fiona Armstrong argued that climate change poses the biggest threat to health this century.
“The National Preventive Health Strategy must tackle climate change to protect and promote health. If we don’t, everything else risks being done for nought,” she warned.
“If the government chooses to ignore the health impacts of climate change, they are refusing to prevent that thousands more Australians will suffer from infectious disease, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, heat stress, mental illness, violence, food insecurity, poor water quality and poorer nutrition.”
Health minister Greg Hunt announced the government would develop the strategy in June 2019, as part of a 10-year plan.