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Why climate change is our biggest global health threat

Since the pandemic hit and 2020 went down as a year like no other, climate change has taken a back step in the global zeitgeist. But there’s no doubt the damaging consequences of the climate crisis are having a harmful effect on our health, and scientific experts argue we must treat climate change with the same urgency as we have Covid-19 to safeguard our future wellbeing.

‘Climate change affects human health in multiple ways,’ says Dr Rebecca Patrick, a member of the Health, Nature and Sustainability Research Group and director of the Sustainable Health Network at Deakin University. ‘Some consequences are obvious, while others are hidden, but either way the impacts are severe.’

Here’s why climate change is a big problem for your health and how you can do your bit to reduce the risks.

Understanding our biggest global threat

According to the World Health Organisation, climate change is the biggest health threat facing humanity – which, given all the other threats to human health around the world, is a pretty big statement. By 2030, the cost to health due to climate change is estimated to be between US$2-$4 billion each year.

Some of the effects of climate change on health are unmistakeable, explains Dr Patrick. ‘The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as what Australia witnessed with the bushfires in 2019-2020, can lead to injuries and loss of life.’

Plus, she says, there can be mental health impacts. ‘If you’re in a flood, cyclone or bushfire, you may experience post-traumatic stress disorder. We also see increased use of alcohol and domestic violence as relationships become fractured.’

'Climate change affects human health in multiple ways. Some consequences are obvious, while others are hidden, but either way the impacts are severe'

Dr Rebecca Patrick,
Director, Sustainable Health Network, Deakin University

Uncovering hidden dangers to health

And then there are the indirect effects, of which there are many. A changing planet can have a mediated impact on our health via worsening air quality and increased respiratory and cardiovascular problems, changes in the spread of infectious diseases – for example, malaria is expected to spread farther than the hotter regions of the world – and threats to food and water security. Research shows crop yields have already begun to decline due to rising temperatures.

Extreme heat also leads to fewer opportunities for outdoor physical exercise. ‘You can’t play on hard, dry surfaces, and we’re likely to see increased injuries,’ Dr Patrick says. ‘When it gets to a certain temperature, it’s hard to be out playing sport. Particularly for children and young people, extreme heat affects opportunities for physical activity.’

What’s more, worry and fear about what could happen to our health, our communities’ health and the health of the planet can trigger what Dr Patrick calls ‘eco-anxiety’. There’s also emerging evidence that government inaction on climate change may contribute to worry and anxiety about the future.

‘For some people, particularly young people, that anxiety or worry can really build up and start to impact on their lives as they look into the future and start to wonder what it’s going to look like,’ Dr Patrick says.

Working to reduce the risks

So, what’s being done to combat the health risks of climate change in Australia? Thankfully, quite a lot, with health professionals and organisations across Australia taking a lead on climate action. Dr Patrick says nearly every peak health body has a position statement on climate change and health, and many have penned open letters to government advocating for improved policies.

‘The health sector has long made the link between climate change and health, and organisations have banded together to form alliances to put pressure on governments to view climate change as a health issue,’ she says. ‘Health professionals are quite credible in our communities and their voice is trusted.’

The health sector is also working to reduce its own environmental footprint and transition to a decarbonised future. This is especially significant because hospitals are large greenhouse gas emitters, accounting for 7% of Australia’s carbon emissions.

‘It’s no use having people come in the front door of hospitals as a result of a climate change event, but out the back door hospitals are pumping out greenhouse gas emissions, because it’s just going to keep happening,’ Dr Patrick says.

Taking charge of your health

Of course, you too can make a difference to the health of the planet and by extension your future health. Figuring out where to start can feel overwhelming, so Dr Patrick recommends ‘working out where your sphere of influence is’ and starting from there.

If you’re a news junkie, be informed so you know which organisations and policies are worth supporting. Social media fans can connect with likeminded people and help to combat fake news. If you have a green thumb, plant a veggie garden and share your yield with neighbours. Take care of office recycling, share advice about ethical super funds, learn how to repair electronics, volunteer with your local environmental group – whatever floats your climate boat.

As an added bonus, Dr Patrick says doing your bit for the planet can lead to immediate mental health benefits: ‘Our research suggests that when you do something for the environment, it helps lower your anxiety and worry because you feel like you’re starting to make a difference and helping to solve the problem. So, it’s good for your health and it’s also good for the environment.’

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Dr Rebecca Patrick
Dr Rebecca Patrick

Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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