Think tank wants governments to prepare their health sectors for climate change impacts

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday December 7, 2020


Australia’s federal, state and territory health departments must address the potentially worsening health threats posed by climate change in their long-term planning, according to a new report released by the Grattan Institute.

In the research launched on Sunday, the think tank said health policy in Australia currently fails to “adequately consider the increasing health risks associated with climate change”.

Report authors Stephen Duckett, Will Mackey, and Anika Stobart noted that Australia has been experiencing more frequent and severe natural disasters as a result of climate change, creating greater health risks for the public.

For example, as droughts, bushfires, and floods worsen, more Australians will suffer physical health problems, such as heat stress, while the impacts of these events on people’s lives will increase mental health problems.

The burden of this will fall on health services, the paper has warned, and governments must act now to minimise the potentially worse impacts in the future.

“Authorities should improve their communication to the public of health risks from exposure to bushfire smoke. Health departments should build more resilience in the healthcare system, so that bushfires and other natural disasters do not compromise healthcare,” the report said.

“Governments also need to do more to address the mental health problems people suffer as a result of natural disasters.

“The actions of all states and territories need to be aligned through a national forum, and be integrated under a broader climate change response strategy.”

The report was released just days after the Western Australian government published its own research on the links between climate change and public health, with the report stating that “connections between climate change and health, between physical and mental health, and between vulnerability and resilience, need reinforcing”.

Read more: Health groups urge government to cover climate change in National Preventive Health Strategy

The federal Department of Health must add the health risks posed by climate change to its priority list, the report recommended.

Earlier this year more than 30 health organisations called on the federal government to include the health impacts of climate change in its upcoming National Preventive Health Strategy. The Grattan Institute has backed that call, and has added the Health department’s Long-term National Health Plan, Corporate Plan, and Medical Research Future Fund investment plan to the list of strategies that should feature climate change.

Another recommendation has suggested the health care sector lead the way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While each state and territory has committed to an economy-wide target of net-zero emissions by 2050 — and the Victorian government has covered climate change in a public health and wellbeing plan — the Grattan Institute has said state and territory governments should develop plans by the end of 2023 for net-zero public health sectors.

“For example, healthcare services could reduce the emissions from their electricity supply by buying energy from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. These services should be required to report annually on their progress to meeting the targets, with each state health department issuing a summary statewide report,” the paper said.

“Larger health services should review their investment policies for their endowment funds to ensure they are also carbon-neutral.”

As hospitals contribute almost half of the health sector’s emissions, hospital accreditation standards should be updated to include a requirement for public and private hospitals to develop carbon footprint plans. The plans should include an assessment of the hospital’s current emissions and identify the most efficient opportunities to reduce carbon emissions over time, the report proposed.

Read more: APRA executive calls for Australia to increase investment in natural disaster mitigation

The report argued that governments must collect data on and monitor climate-related health risks, as it “enables public health departments to design targeted policies that protect vulnerable people”.

In order to be effective, climate change health surveillance should include:

  • Adequate systems and technologies for comprehensive data collection,
  • Real-time monitoring,
  • Coverage of multiple indicators,
  • Integrated data on environmental and health risks,
  • The ability to pin-point vulnerable regions or groups for targeted messaging and health system responses,
  • Data on the immediate and direct health effects and long-term and indirect effects,
  • Forecasting of future risks.

Other recommendations to the commonwealth, states and territories included establishing a climate change and health subcommittee of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, clearly communicating with Australians about the current and future climate-related health risks, improving mental health support systems, and reviewing health service resilience to climate disasters.

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