The group of 19 experts from 13 universities and research institutes say Australia has “gone backwards” and lags other developed countries including Germany and Britain when it comes to protecting people’s health from the effects of climate change such as rising temperatures and air pollution.
In the first in-depth report on Australia’s progress on tackling climate change health threats, the experts identify risks including malnutrition, heatwaves, disease outbreaks, and mental health problems.
And they note that except for Queensland, no state or territory has a comprehensive, stand-alone policy to help people adapt to climate change and protect their health.
“Overall, we find that Australia is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on health, and that policy inaction in this regard threatens Australian lives,” says the report, published by the Medical Journal of Australia and The Lancet today.
The report focuses on direct health impacts such as heatwave-related deaths, measures in place to help people adapt, and the benefits of mitigating the threats by doing things like having a more sustainable transport system to help improve air quality.
It also takes a unique look at the impact climate change can have on mental health, noting a link between an increasing number of suicides and rising temperatures in recent years.
“I think this is an area we need to focus on,” one of the report’s co-authors Associate Professor Paul Beggs, from Macquarie University, told AAP.
“One of the report’s policy recommendations is to do more research in this area to look at the relationship between climate and mental health so we can cope better.”
The report calls on governments of all levels to introduce comprehensive policies to help cities and people adapt to rising temperatures and longer heatwaves, both of which are associated with higher mortality rates.
A warmer climate can also affect the spread of salmonella infections and dengue fever outbreaks, while more frequent droughts and floods can threaten fresh food supplies and the ability of people to eat a healthy diet, it warned.
Beggs said urgent action is also needed in terms of renewable energy given Australia’s heavy reliance on carbon-intensive power supplies.
“We used to be one of the leaders in terms of renewable energy but other countries have now overtaken us,” he said.
He suggested perhaps one reason for the lack of policy action in Australia was a drop in media stories about the health impacts of climate change and measures taken by other countries.
The report found a 50 per cent reduction in media stories about health and climate change in Australia in the past decade, compared to a 78 per cent rise in newspaper coverage worldwide.
“Relatedly, there has been an absence of political engagement with health and climate change in Australia in the same period,” it said.
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