Govts doing little to tackle climate health threat
More than half of governments around the world are yet to develop national plans to protect their citizens from the health effects of climate change despite increasing warnings it will cause more extreme weather, spread disease and put pressure on food and water supplies.
As leaders from around the world meet in Paris for UN climate talks, an international survey of 35 countries, including Australia, has found a general lack of focus and urgency around the looming threat of climate change to health, with most governments doing little work on likely effects and how to mitigate them.
The survey results underline calls from the AMA, the World Medical Association and other national medical organisations for the health effects of climate change to be made a priority at the climate talks.
AMA President Professor Brian Owler said that while much of the Paris talks will be about carbon emission targets, there should be equal emphasis on equipping health systems to cope with the extra burden of problems created by climate change.
“Climate change will dramatically alter the patterns and rate of spread of diseases, rainfall distribution, availability of drinking water and drought,” Professor Owler said. “The incidence of conditions such as malaria, diarrhoea and cardio-respiratory problems is likely to rise.”
He said the Paris Conference was “the perfect place” to develop and implement plans to deal with these effects.
The AMA President’s comments came as a survey coordinated by the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA) found almost 80 per cent of governments are yet to comprehensively assess the threat climate change poses to the health of their citizens, two-thirds had done little to identify vulnerable populations and infrastructure or examine their capacity to cope, and less than half had developed a national plan.
The result underlines the importance of repeated AMA calls for the Federal Government to do much more to prepare for the effects of climate change, which Professor Owler said were “inevitable”.
Earlier this year the AMA released an updated Position Statement on Climate Change and Human Health that warned of multiple risks including increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events, deleterious effects on food production, increased pressure on scarce water resources, the displacement of people and an increase in health threats such as vector-borne diseases and climate-related illnesses.
“There are already significant health and social effects of climate change and extreme weather events, and these effects will worsen over time if we do not take action now,” Professor Owler said.
“Nations must start now to plan and prepare. If we do not get policies in place now, we will be doing the next generation a great disservice.
“It would be intergenerational theft of the worst kind — we would be robbing our kids of their future.”
In May, the AMA and the Australian Academy of Science jointly launched the Climate change challenges to health: Risks and opportunities report that detailed the likely health effects of climate change and called for the establishment of a National Centre of Disease Control to provide a national and coordinated approach to threat.
The WFPHA said the results of its survey, released little more than two weeks before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, should serve as a wake-up call for governments to do much more.
“The specifics of these responses provide insight into the lack of focus of national governments around the world on climate and health,” the Federation said.
Disturbingly, the survey found that Australia was one of the laggards in addressing the health effects of climate change, having done little to assess vulnerabilities and long-term impacts, develop an early warning system or adaptation responses, and yet to establish a health surveillance plan.
On many of these measures, the nation was lagging behind countries like the United States, Sweden, Taiwan, New Zealand and even Russia and China.
Climate and Health Alliance Executive Director Fiona Armstrong, who helped coordinate the survey, said the results showed the Federal Government needed to place far greater emphasis on human health in its approach to climate change.
“As a wealthy country…whose population is particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change, it is very disappointing to see this lack of leadership from policymakers in Australia,” Ms Armstrong said.
Public Health Association of Australia Chief Executive Officer Mike Moore said the increasing number and ferocity of bushfires and storms underlined the urgent need for action.
“It is time to ensure that health-related climate issues are part of our national planning and budgeting if we are to pre-empt many avoidable illnesses and injuries,” Mr Moore said.
The AMA’s Position Statement on Climate Change and Human Health can be viewed at: position-statement/ama-position-statement-climate-change-and-human-health-2004-revised-2015