Australia’s top science and medical bodies have called on the government and community to start preparing for the health impacts of climate change, including setting a firm emissions reduction target.
The report, released by the Australian Academy of Science and endorsed by the Australian Medical Association, also states that improvements are needed to urban design and building design in order to mitigate the impacts of increased heat, flooding, bushfire and severe storms.
Climate Change Challenges to Health: Risks and Opportunities is the result of a “think tank” held last year that brought to together researchers from a number of disciplines including health, agriculture and natural resources.
According to the researchers, the elderly, sick, very young and those disadvantaged by either limited finances or remoteness are most likely to suffer health problems as the climate changes.
“Human health is where we’ll see some of the most immediate impacts of a changing climate,” Academy Fellow Professor Bruce Armstrong, one of the contributors to the report, said.
“Whether it be more heatwaves, tropical diseases moving to new areas, or lost jobs in farming, fishing and tourism; these are all directly linked to costs for health and mental health. The inequalities that already exist in society are likely to widen, as more advantaged groups are able to adapt better to this different world.”
The report makes eight recommendations to alleviate the impacts and improve adaptation to a changing climate. They include creating programs and early warning systems for those identified as being most vulnerable; better coordination of adaption strategies through the establishment of a new National Centre for Disease Control and a new National Food and Water Commission; and encouraging individuals and organisations to take early action to help affected community members.
“The potential impact of climate change on human health will require complex responses from society— which reinforces the need for Australia to pursue the goal of national and international reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases,” the report states.
The role of the landscape in mitigating impacts was highlighted, with the think tank identifying a need for research that could lead to better landscape designs and also designs for energy-efficient, climate-proof houses and buildings. Urban planning also needs to incorporate climate risk.
“There is also a need to provide and protect green spaces in residential and commercial zones,” the report states.
“Innovative architectural solutions are required to create landscapes that will adequately cope with weather extremes and meet the challenges of future climate change.
“Identifying locations at risk would also be useful for city planners, architects and public health practitioners. People who are most vulnerable during heatwaves often live in poor-quality housing in the hottest suburbs. Hazard maps should be created for areas likely to suffer significant health burdens in a warming climate as well as those at risk from floods, bushfires, cyclones and storm surges.”
Food waste also came under the microscope as a key source of carbon emissions, as a very high percentage of food produced in Australia, particularly perishables such as fruit and vegetables, is wasted either before or during shipping and storage or post-purchase. The researchers say that efficiency needs to be improved, and technology developed to support long-term sustainability.
The think tank also identified the economic and social positives of taking up the climate change challenge.
“Adapting in a well-planned way to a world shaped by climate change also could also create new opportunities for livelihoods and reduce disadvantage,” the report states.
“Many actions are needed, however: strengthening public health systems, developing low-emission cities and transport systems, and building local infrastructure for community resilience.
“Improving the local availability of key resources – such as local energy generation, water collection and food production, fostering local social networks, and designing more walkable neighbourhoods – will also help. For example, local production of healthy food could improve resilience to interruptions to food supply chains while also reducing transport emissions, facilitating good nutrition and physical activity and improving food security for low-income families.”