From Townsville To Tuvalu; Health and climate change in Australia and the Asia Pacific region
Mason Littlejohn and Misha Coleman, July 2019 (Monash University)
Overview: addressing climate change’s health challenge
Most people accept that climate change is transforming the global atmosphere and environment. Yet far fewer understand the significant impacts that climate and environmental change are having on human health. In the Asia Pacific region, climate change is raising sea levels, exacerbating the severity of natural disasters, reducing nutrition levels in food2 and increasing disease produced by unclean water. All present substantial risks for the health of humans, including Australians.
This policy paper by the Global Health Alliance Australia highlights evidence and case studies to show how climate and environmental change will affect human health in the Asia Pacific region. It provides proposals for how Australian Governments - Federal, State and Local - might respond to this challenge, arguing that Australia’s aid, health and agricultural portfolios have an opportunity to develop policies that build resilience in our region to the impacts of climate change on human health. Such an approach would elevate Australia’s standing in the region. The benefits are also closer to home, in terms of reduced health risks, and improved political, health and economic security for Australians.
Australia has longstanding commitments to the region, notably through its Official Development Assistance program, but also through a host of government and non-government initiatives. Australia has a major opportunity to build on these efforts by supporting its partner countries to develop their resilience to the health impacts of climate change. This paper identifies three areas in which climate change will have a major impact – on political, economic and health systems, on the risk of disease, and on vulnerable populations – before proposing potential policy responses.
The paper uses the concept of planetary health to show that environmental and human health cannot be separated. It also argues that climate and environmental change will affect the health of all citizens of the Asia Pacific region, including Australians. The health effects will be different across the region and Australians are also vulnerable to many climaterelated health issues, including heat stress, air pollution, and cardiorespiratory illness caused by burning fossil fuels and fires.
Disease knows no borders. For example, the Nipah virus, a bat-borne disease that causes fatal infections in humans and pigs in South-East Asia is largely unknown in Australia today. But climate change and loss of natural habitat are pushing it closer to human populations. By 2050 Northern Australia will be at a far greater risk of this deadly virus becoming established domestically. In addition, if neighbouring health systems prove inadequate, pressure on Australia to provide assistance, even a safe haven for climate refugees, will grow.
The threat is great, but so is the opportunity. “Tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century,” argues the medical science journal, The Lancet.”3 Models produced for a 2018 study published in The Lancet Planetary Health found that savings from health benefits alone would compensate for the costs of mitigating the effects of climate change in line with the Paris Agreement.4
The link between environmental and human health has not been at the centre of Australian policymaking. This paper hopes to redress that gap, and to inspire effective policy solutions to an issue of vast and growing significance to Australia, its region, and the world.
Recommendations for Australian Governments at a glance: summary
A nine-point plan
1. Publicly recognise the health impacts of climate change.
2. The priorities articulated by Health Ministers in the Pacific should drive Australia’s investments there.
3. Equip the current and future workforce in Australia and across the Asia Pacific region for emerging threats to health from climate change.
4. Devise an implementation agenda for addressing the health impacts of climate change by:
a. Undertaking a benchmark National Health Survey in Australia which includes questions to understand the environmental drivers of poor health, including the impacts of climate change;
b. Including the impacts and responses to climate change as a Standing Item on the agendas of all the COAG Councils;
c. Requiring that all Cabinet Submissions contain a climate change impacts analysis;
d. Tasking the Productivity Commission to assess the cost-effectiveness of action on climate change and the associated co-benefits on our health;
e. Giving high priority to the impacts on health of climate change in the Department of Foreign Affairs and trade forthcoming climate change action strategy for the aid program, and implement this strategy urgently;
f. Reviewing and discussing the Climate and Health Alliance’s Framework for a National Strategy (outlined in Annex One)
5. Support direct action in Australia through State and Local Government Area-based public health strategies.
6. Establish a multi-institutional Health and Climate Change Research Facility, based in rural Australia
7. Increase financial investment that would facilitate innovation and opportunities to develop effective health adaptations and low/zero-emissions initiatives – focusing on rural Australia and the Pacific. \
8. Support proven solutions that address the impact of climate change on health.
9. Support policy initiatives that involve the community and citizens…
Climate change and health: three emerging themes…Theme 1: How climate change threatens political, economic and health systems…Theme 2: Climate change’s impact on environmental health and the risk of disease…Theme 3: How climate change threatens vulnerable populations…
Policy Considerations for Australian Governments
The Australian Federal Government could design and implement a whole-of-government strategy that enables Australia to respond to the health impacts of climate change, both in Australia and the Asia Pacific region.
The Climate and Health Alliance has recommended that the Australian Government design and implement a unified National Strategy on Climate, Health and Well-being. The Global Health Alliance supports this proposal, and suggests the Australian Government consider and extend this framework by introducing a core component dedicated to international development and global health. This strategy should address Australia’s role in building capabilities within the Asia Pacific region to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Australia’s Official Development Assistance program has an opportunity to develop a strategic approach to global health and climate change by elevating and linking these policy areas within the agenda, narrative and planning of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and between other Australian Government departments, such as Health, Defence, Agriculture, ACIAR and Home Affairs.
These departments and Australian non-government organisations already have internationally recognised capabilities, relationships and technical skills essential for addressing climate change’s impact on health. However, a robust framework is needed to guide the partnerships, investments and programmatic activities of Australian Government departments and other organisations and to ensure they are effective. Such a strategy, properly implemented, could establish Australia as a leader in the field of climate change, environmental and human health.
Federal Departments could also recognise and partner with State, Territory and Local Government Areas to implement initiatives that are domestically-focused, and with State-based jurisdictions with international strategies and capacity, such as the Department of Health and Human Services through the Victorian International Health Strategy.105
It should be noted that some work on climate change and health policy is being progressed by some states such as Queensland,106 NSW107 and Tasmania.108
Finally, the strategy would address the relationships between climate change, and human, animal and environmental health set out in United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing), 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) and 13 (Climate Action)…