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Public Health

The impact of climate change on public health in Australia

Climate change is impacting many facets of our life, including our health. Here are some of the impacts it is having on public health in Australia

By Meegan Waugh Published 27/09/2022

We know that climate change is impacting on our health. The World Health Organisation has identified air cleanliness, secure living conditions, clean drinking water and access to enough food as health concerns all related to climate change. 

In fact, between 2030 and 2050 climate change is expected to cause a quarter of a million additional deaths (WHO, accessed 7 July). These deaths may be from illness or death directly caused by extreme weather events, or more indirectly by the spread of infectious diseases, decreased air quality or impacts on our mental health. All of this means extra pressure on health systems that are already straining under a range of issues, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and widespread skills shortages

The good news is that we can play an active role in managing the health impacts of climate change.

The public health sector will play a critical role in the prevention, management and treatment of climate-change-related issues. Aside from clinical workers on the front line, there’s a huge need for public health advocacy as climate change worsens, and for policy makers to create policies that reflect Australia’s changing health environment.

How climate change is impacting our health

We know that extreme weather events like bushfires or floods can put people in real physical danger, with risks including burns, respiratory failure, severe injury or even death.

‘Australia is like a giant frying pan heating up steadily,’ says Adjunct Professor Tarun Weeramanthri, President of Public Health Association Australia. ‘The physical and mental health effects of climate change are serious, well documented and growing, and the speed of change is quickening.’

But it’s not just the immediate danger that needs to be considered; natural disasters also come with serious knock-on effects (APHA, accessed 7 July). For example, smoke and mould can harm our respiratory systems, and water contamination causing water-borne disease, can lead to physical health problems that require long-term medical treatment, placing additional burden on the health system.

Displacement and job insecurity after a natural disaster or pandemic can also take a toll on our mental health. To see these impacts in real life, you need look no further than the lengthy waitlists Australians are facing for mental health care as the COVID-19 pandemic continues (ABC, accessed 7 July).

Other less direct impacts on public health include risks to our food supply. The impacts of climate change on our food could result in scarcity of nutritional food, or even lower nutritional value of staples (Farmers for Climate Action, accessed 7 July). We also know that a diet with less fresh fruit and vegetables and more processed food is a risk factor for illness and chronic health problems (SA Health, accessed 7 July).

Infectious diseases on the rise

Climate change has been shown to impact human infectious disease through pathogen, host and transmission (ScienceDirect, accessed 7 July). It also creates ideal conditions for the spread of some water-borne and mosquito-borne diseases (Harvard, accessed 7 July).

There’s a strong link between human-driven environmental change and diseases like COVID-19, too (La Trobe University, accessed 24 July). It’s just one of several diseases – including HIV, Ebola, bird flu and SARS – that originated in animals before being transmitted to humans. 

In many of these cases, the transmission from animal to human is driven by deforestation and destruction of habitat, forcing wild animals into different environments. If we keep encroaching on the habitats of animals, we’ll not only contribute to further climate change, but also pave the way for future pandemics and the widespread devastation that comes with them. 

Human-driven environmental change can also increase the severity of these pandemics. Research from Harvard has shown some links between lower-income communities are disproportionally affected by air pollution, which is a driving factor in both climate change and a higher mortality rate from COVID-19 (Harvard, accessed 7 July). To minimise the impact of the next pandemic, climate change action with public health policy will need to work hand in hand.

In terms of global crises, researchers have found that COVID-19 actually shares many parallels with the climate crisis – and identified the lessons we can learn from the pandemic (Sci Total Environ, accessed 7 July).

Climate change is impacting our public health policies

Climate change is already impacting public health policy, and we’ve seen climate-change-driven interventions lead to positive changes in public health.

Findings from a review by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP), for example, found that implementing hospital-wide waste reduction saved money and optimised the health of building occupants. And, in a surgical setting, reprocessing surgical devices and switching to reusable textiles helped decrease their carbon footprint and save money (RACP, accessed 7 July).

Health policy is led by research and planning. Advisory boards, clinicians, researchers and health leaders with access to outcome data all have the capacity to influence new public health policy relating to climate change.

For example, the RACP has put forward recommendations to create a national strategy on climate change and health (RACP, accessed 7 July). They advocate for investment in prevention and early intervention as well as committing to delivering net zero health care by 2040.

‘Public health and health professionals in general are prepared to play a part stepping up to lead in the climate and health space,’ says Adjunct Professor Weeramanthri. ‘But we urgently need a funded national strategy that covers both adaptation and emissions reduction in the health sector.’

It’s critical that future public health policies are developed with a clear understanding of both climate change and health in order to prepare our public healthcare system for the future.

Working in public health

Public health offers many career paths and areas to work in. It’s a growing field, expected to grow by more than 15 per cent in the five years to November 2026 (Labour Market Insights, accessed 7 July). It encompasses clinical roles as well as roles in government, advocacy and research. 

Wherever your public health career takes you, climate change will inevitably be part of that career. On a clinical level, you may find yourself in a public hospital, clinic or pharmacy, dealing with the health impact of climate change from the front line. In research and policy, you could work in a government health department, not-for-profit or consulting firm, contributing to policies and building the body of climate change and health research. Or, you may take a role within a peak body to advocate for policy change. 

Take, for example, the role of a pharmacist. The Canadian Pharmacists Journal has touted pharmacists as ‘uniquely positioned and skilled’ to take a leadership role in the fight against climate change (CPJ, accessed 7 July).

Pharmacists are an important part of Australia’s healthcare system. A pharmacist has the opportunity to educate patients on best practice. For example, to minimise waste of inhalers and to advocate (when clinically appropriate) for the use of soft-mist inhalers that are more eco-friendly than metered dose inhalers (MDIs).

The proper disposal of pharmaceuticals and the overall concept of sustainable health care are also within a pharmacist’s role to educate the community and other healthcare professionals on.

Pharmacists play a key role in reducing hospital admissions and improving patient outcomes (SHPA, accessed 7 July). They have also voiced concerns over cold-chain medication wastage when transporting medication to rural Australia during extreme heat. 

As climate change continues to impact the supply, storage and delivery of medication, pharmacists will play a key role in the innovation needed to combat these real issues.

Studying climate change to support your public health career

Postgraduate study will give you the key skills you need to play a role in tackling the evolving threat of climate change. 

All workers in public health should be equipped with climate health training, says the RACP (RACP, accessed July 7). This extends to improving what is referred to as the ‘environmental performance of hospitals’ which encompasses surgical costs, reducing waste (and how waste is disposed) as well as reducing chemical use (RACP, accessed 7 July).

When considering where to study public health online, it’s important to make sure you can clearly see how your classroom learnings will connect to real-world practice. As the impacts of climate change are felt more and more in public health, your understanding of that link will be critical to making meaningful change.