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As heat records continue to melt away, where is progress on Australia’s climate health strategy?

Croakey introduction

Updated January 11 with response from Aged Care and Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt

The Bureau of Meteorology’s Annual Climate Statement, released today, confirms that 2017 was Australia’s third-warmest year on record.

According to the Bureau’s analysis below, originally published at The Conversation, 2017 also saw regional record-breaking features across the nation, including Victoria’s driest June on record, the driest September for  New South Wales and the Murray-Darling Basin since nationwide records begin in 1900, and Northern Australia’s warmest dry season for maximum temperature.

The BOM’s annual statement follows hot on the heels of extreme heat experienced across much of south-eastern Australia as 2018 opened, which saw – as the New York Times described – “life-threatening” temperatures, with Penrith topping the charts with 47.3 degrees Celsius last Sunday, the hottest day in Sydney since 1939.

They beg the question of what progress there has been from the Federal Government in particular on addressing the health risks of climate change, six months on from the release of the Climate and Health Alliance‘s Framework for a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Well-being for Australia in June 2017.

As this Croakey story outlined at the time, CAHA’s landmark report sets out a detailed road-map for addressing the health risks of climate change.

There were hopes that the tripartite support for the framework’s launch by the Federal Government (with Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt attending), as well as Labor and the Greens, could see coordinated national action to tackle the health threats arising from climate change put on the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Health Council agenda.

Late last year the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change Australia Policy Brief also called on the Australian Government to develop and implement, “with urgency”, a National Climate and Health Strategy to ensure a comprehensive and coordinated approach for tackling health and climate change challenges in Australia.

It highlighted the CAHA framework as an exemplar – a key example of positive collaborative action from health sector organisations which “goes beyond aspirational policy directives, and provides tangible strategies with measurable outcomes”.

The Lancet also this week featured a report on a new University of Sydney study, the first of its kind, showing that the carbon footprint attributed to health care is seven per cent of Australia’s total; with hospitals and pharmaceuticals the major contributors.

“Every sector of the economy must be analysed to see how we can do better and the healthcare system needs to be part of the solution and not a large contributor to the problem,” said Dr Forbes McGain, a co-author of the study and Doctors for the Environment Australia spokesperson.

Croakey has asked the offices of both Minister Wyatt and Health Minister Greg Hunt what steps have been taken to progress policies and frameworks to address climate change and health.

Minister Wyatt responded:

The Turnbull Government is working – through the Australian Government Disaster and Climate Resilience Reference Group – on a range of actions to assess how climate change will impact on health. We acknowledge and value input from a wide variety of sources, including the Climate and Health Alliance. The work of the Disaster and Climate Resilience Group will inform future directions on climate change and health.

Australia’s adaptive responses to the health effects of climate change are managed through its existing health services. The Department of Health is constantly working to ensure they have the capacity to respond to any changes in demand brought about by various pressures, including climate change.

The Department, on behalf of the Australian Government, manages various programs to address many of the health conditions which may be impacted by climate change, such as airways diseases. Australia also has preventive health mechanisms in place to provide a healthy and safe environment, for example, by ensuring clean water and air, protection from pollutants and surveillance systems to combat the spread of disease.

These programs can be scaled up or down to meet any prominent and long term changes in disease prevalence. They are regularly reviewed to ensure that they best meet the health needs of Australia. Combined, these approaches will ensure that Australia is able to track any amplification of existing health issues that may arise from climate change, and direct resources where needed.

The Turnbull Government continues to tackle climate change through an ambitious and responsible emissions reduction program.

While CAHA is also waiting to hear about any initiatives at the national level, outgoing Executive Director Fiona Armstrong said there has been some pleasing progress at the state level, led by Queensland and with promising interest from Victoria.

Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science (DES) has engaged CAHA and the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) to facilitate the development of a Climate, Health and Wellbeing Plan for the Health Sector for the state, she said.

Meanwhile, CAHA this week announced that Simon Towle will next week take up the position of Executive Director to succeed Armstrong, who has led the organisation since it was created in 2010 and will continue as a Board member and consultant.

Towle has qualifications in environmental science, geography, Antarctic and southern oceans ecology, political science, planning and environmental law, and journalism.

He has previously been the CEO of Gunggandji Aboriginal Corporation; Regional Manager, Cape York Peninsula, for Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority; Principal at Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships (DATSIP); and Director of Conservation, WWF-NZ.


Linden Ashcroft, Blair Trewin, and Skie Tobin write

From The Conversation: Australia’s climate in 2017: a warm year, with a wet start and finish

The Bureau of Meterology’s Annual Climate Statement, released today, confirms that 2017 was Australia’s third-warmest year on record, and our maximum temperature was the second-warmest. Globally, 2017 is likely to be one of the world’s three warmest years on record, and the warmest year without an El Niño.


Read more: Explainer: El Niño and La Niña


But looking at the big picture can obscure some regional record-breaking features. Victoria experienced its driest June on record, and September saw New South Wales and the Murray–Darling Basin record their driest September since nationwide records begin in 1900. Sydney’s Observatory Hill had its driest September since records started there in 1858.

The southwest of Western Australia had its warmest maximum temperatures on record for June. Northern Australia also recorded its warmest dry season for maximum temperature.

A field in Moree, New South Wales. The state had its driest September on record. Bureau of Meteorology, Author provided

This warm year occurred despite the fact that, unlike 2016, there was no strong El Niño or La Niña pattern in the Pacific Ocean for much of the year, and the Indian Ocean Dipole remained neutral.


Read more: What is the Indian Ocean Dipole?


Wet in the northwest, dry in the east

Australia’s average total rainfall in 2017 was 504mm, somewhat above average. But the annual average hides large swings from very dry months to damaging downpours, and large differences from the east to the west of the country.

The year began wet, particularly in the west. Tropical lows brought heavy rainfall across the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia during January and February, and many places in Western Australia set new records for their wettest summer day. It was our fourth-wettest January on record nationally.

Severe Tropical Cyclone Debbie crossed the south Queensland coast in late March and tracked southwards delivering torrential rainfall along the east coast. Several locations received up to a metre of rainfall in two days, and major flooding occurred from Bowen, in Queensland, to Lismore, in New South Wales.

The west of Western Australia was dry for much of autumn and early winter. Winter rainfall was also low across southern Australia under the effect of a subtropical ridge stronger and further south than usual.

Heavy rain across much of Queensland and northern New South Wales during October meant that Bundaberg received more than 400% of its average rainfall for October in the first three weeks of the month.

In late December, Tropical Cyclone Hilda became the first cyclone to make landfall in the 2017-18 Australian cyclone season, bringing heavy rains around Broome.

Australia’s rainfall in 2017. Bureau of Meteorology, Author provided

A hot start

It might not have always felt like it, but 2017 was much warmer than average. It was the third-warmest year on record for Australia, 0.95℃ above average, and the warmest on record for Queensland and New South Wales. Sea surface temperatures were also much warmer than average around Australia, although not as warm as 2016.

Australia’s average temperatures in 2017. Bureau of Meteorology, Author provided

New South Wales experienced its warmest summer on record, and heatwaves affected much of eastern Australia during the first two months of the year. At the same time, rain kept summer temperatures below average in the west.

The high temperatures around eastern Australia continued into autumn, over both land and sea. Coral bleaching affected the Great Barrier Reef again, the first time mass bleaching events have occurred in consecutive years.

Warm days but chilly winter nights

As winter set in, the lack of rainfall and clouds led to warm sunny days. The southwest of Western Australia had its warmest maximum temperatures on record for June.


Read more: Australia’s record-breaking winter warmth linked to climate change


However the clear skies also meant frosty mornings across much of Victoria, southern New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania. Canberra, which is known for its chilly nights, had its lowest winter mean minimum temperature since 1982. Some locations, including Sale in Victoria, and Deniliquin and West Wyalong in New South Wales, had their coldest night on record during the first few days of July.

Meanwhile, northern Australia recorded its warmest dry season on record for maximum temperature. The mean maximum temperature for northern Australia was 2℃ above average for the five months from May to September, beating the previous record set in 2013 by almost half a degree.

A warm finish

In September, northerly air flow brought the warm air over to the east of the country, with the month culminating in a week of exceptional heat. New South Wales recorded its first ever 40℃ in September – not once, but on two separate days – and some places beat their previous hottest September day on record by more than 3 degrees.

Late-season frosts in early November caused damage to crops in western Victoria, but the cold was soon replaced by prolonged heat thanks to a slow moving high pressure system parked over the Tasman Sea.

The northerly winds and sunny days meant that many places in Victoria and Tasmania had record runs of days warmer than 25℃, and nights warmer than 15℃. It was Tasmania’s warmest November on record, with temperatures more typical of late summer than late spring.

The long-lived weather system led to record-breaking November sea surface temperatures between Tasmania and New Zealand, which also had a very warm and dry November. The southeast of the country finished 2017 with our first heatwave of the summer in mid-December.

The bigger picture

Global mean temperature anomalies relative to 1961-1990, 1880–2017. Bureau of Meteorology, Author provided

The World Meteorological Organization releases the final global mean temperature for 2017 in mid-January. This enables it to collect as many observations as possible from different countries. But the January to November global average can give a pretty good idea of where 2017 will sit: one of the world’s three warmest years on record.

The planet has seen plenty of extreme weather events over the past year, including hurricanes, flooding, and devastating bushfires.

Global temperatures have increased by about one degree since 1900. Mean global temperatures have been above average every year since 1985, and all of the ten warmest years have occurred between 1998 and the present. Seven of Australia’s ten warmest years have now occurred since 2005.

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Inside Story
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Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
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AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
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National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
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Population Health Congress 2015
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