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Diagnosing the health costs of the climate emergency – and the cures

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

The quality of Australian buildings is vital in protecting our population from the rapidly-escalating health impacts of the climate emergency, according to a new report by the Global Health Alliance Australia.

The Health and climate change: from Townsville to Tuvalu report outlines the key emerging health risks for the Australian region including vector-borne diseases, heat impacts, water supply degradation, mental health issues, malnutrition and worsening social equity.

It also outlines a nine-point plan that calls on Australia’s federal, state and local governments to respond and draw on the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific fund to address these serious challenges.

“When we understand that climate change is a health issue, and that health is already being affected here in Australia and across the region, it is clear that there is an urgent need for action,” Professor John Thwaites, chairman of Monash Sustainable Development Institute and ClimateWorks Australia, said.

“An effective government response will require interventions from a number of sectors including agriculture, transport, housing, water and sanitation.”

The report also calls for a Benchmark National Health survey that would have questions around the environmental drivers of poor health, including the impacts of climate change.

An example of these types of impacts in the report is how rising heat discourages activity including walking, cycling and other forms of active recreation, which has a direct impact on rates of cardiovascular disease and obesity.

Another alarming finding is the likelihood potentially fatal diseases such as the Nipah virus – carried by bats and already established to Australia’s north – could progress south as the species hosts migrate to escape rising temperatures.

It also outlines the impact severe weather events exacerbated by climate change can have on the younger generations. Researchers have found events such as the Brisbane Floods can limit the cognitive development of infants and young children.

Studies showed that when these events are experienced in-utero, once born the children have on average smaller vocabularies when they are two years old than their peers who were not exposed to similar disasters.

The planning, design and construction of our residential buildings was identified as a crucial element in ensuring our communities are more resilient to climate change impacts.

“In responding to the health impacts of climate change, Australian state and local governments can play a key role by investing in adaptation and mitigation responses that have co-benefits for human, animal and environmental health,” the report’s foreword stated.

“For example, improved housing design, orientation and ventilation will protect the health of people during heatwaves, reduce demand for energy and risk of blackouts, and also reduce the size of household energy bills. Investments in sustainable urban mass transit systems will enable active travel and improve population levels of physical activity, reduce toxic air pollution from motor vehicle use, and also reduce greenhouse emissions from urban transport.”

Clear links are made between the factors that will exacerbate the climate crisis such as continued high levels of fossil fuel use and growing health issues such as asthma and respiratory disease.

The cost of health impacts on the public health system and lost productivity is also quantified, laying out the economic case for action.

“Reducing and adapting to the impacts of climate change on health offers a clear economic imperative and benefit,” Professor Thwaites said.

“In particular, preventative and early actions can generate substantial public and private savings over time.”

Read the report here.

 

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