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Launching the first Australian-specific glossary on health and climate change

A new resource, An Australian Glossary on Health and Climate Change, has been launched to support effective communication and collaboration across the many sectors involved in addressing climate change and health.

The authors welcome suggestions for additions and updates, write Matilde Breth-Petersen, Professor Lucie Rychetnik, Professor Alexandra Barratt and Associate Professor Ying Zhang, from the University of Sydney School of Public Health.


Matilde Breth-Petersen, Lucie Rychetnik, Alexandra Barratt and Ying Zhang write:

We are a team of researchers from the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health who have developed Australia’s first glossary on health and climate change to support intersectoral research, practice, and policy in the Australian context. A report of the project is out today in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Australia is at the frontline of the climate emergency; our health is already suffering from more severe and frequent heatwaves and bushfires, as well as increased air pollution and infectious diseases, all caused and exacerbated by climate change.

In March 2021, Australia’s Medical Association released a joint statement calling on the Australian healthcare sector to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2040 (currently, healthcare itself accounts for seven percent of Australia’s total carbon footprint).

Effectively addressing climate change and health needs collaboration across multiple sectors. Yet, we lack a common understanding and shared language to underpin the research and policies needed to protect our health. There are many international glossaries, but none that speak to the priorities and perspectives of Australia. The new Australian glossary fills this gap.

Funded by the Human Health and Social Impacts Node, a joint research partnership between the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment and the University of Sydney, we reviewed 38 international glossaries and then worked with a variety of stakeholders with expertise in areas such as sustainability, health (including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing), epidemiology, health policy, climate and meteorology, and emergency management. We tapped some of these stakeholders’ valuable knowledges through online workshops and surveys, helping us to select the most relevant terms and appropriate definitions.

Some definitions stayed the same as in pre-existing international glossies; however, we amended many to better suit the Australian context.

Eight key terms

Here are eight of the key terms from our glossary that you need to know to understand research on climate change and health in Australia:

  1. Solastalgia: This home-grown Australian term by Glenn Albrecht was developed to give greater clarity to environmentally induced stress, highlighting the psychosocial and emotional harms of climate change. Solastalgia can be experienced by all but could be especially profound for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Recent research has shown that floods in northern NSW and extreme heat events in north-west Victoria are having significant adverse mental health impacts, of which solastalgia is just one.

”As opposed to nostalgia (the melancholia or homesickness experienced by individuals when separated from a loved home), solastalgia is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment. Experiences of solastalgia may also involve loss of connection to, and integrity of, one’s own place, one’s home or Country, as well as the resulting sense of isolation.”

  1. Bushfires/Bushfire disaster: There are variations and confusion around fire-related terminology, both internationally and nationally (for example, some of the different terms include bushfires, wildfires, forestfires and grassfires. Some fires are planned, including hazard reduction burning and “cultural burning”, which refers to the burning practices developed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to enhance the health of the land and its people. Many fires in Australia are integral to ecosystem functioning, such as “savanna fires”; hence, use of the term “fire disasters” is often not appropriate.

”Bushfires are fires in vegetated landscape whether accidentally or deliberately lit. It is a generic term that includes grass, forest, and scrub fires. Fires used to modify fuels to reduce the risk associated with future bushfires are also known as planned burns which are also called controlled burns, prescribed burns, fuel-reduction burns or hazard reduction burns. A bushfire disaster occurs when uncontrollable bushfires adversely affect human lives, property, or the environment.”

  1. Adaptation and Mitigation: These are the two key strategies in responding to climate change and can be both long- or short-term. Mitigation aims to reduce the contribution of climate change, and adaptation manages the unavoidable changes.

”Adaptation is the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects. In human systems the process may moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. Multiple outcomes may result from climate adaptation processes, including unintended consequences.

Mitigation is a human intervention to reduce emissions or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.”

  1. Climate resilience: Climate resilience in the Australian context, according to our definition, considers our political and governance systems’ capacity to cope with and enhance resilience for future climate risks.

”The capacity of social, economic, environmental and governance systems to cope with a hazardous event or trend or disturbance, responding or reorganizing in ways that maintain their essential function, identity and structure while also maintaining the capacity for adaptation, learning, transformation and enhanced resilience for future events.”

  1. Carbon accounting/footprinting: A better understanding of this term is important to set up countries’ emission targets and differentiate responsibilities among various sectors to achieve zero carbon emission.

”Though carbon accounting/footprinting covers a wide range of different practices and means different things to different groups of people, it can generally be split into two categories: physical carbon accounting, which looks at quantifying physical amounts greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere and financial carbon accounting which looks at giving carbon a financial market value. Physical carbon accounting for example, can be used to help companies and countries work out how much carbon they are emitting into the atmosphere, this is known as a greenhouse gas inventory. Once it has been established how much carbon is being emitted, reduction targets can be set. This method is also important for helping us assign responsibility to different parties for their associated carbon emissions.”

  1. Circular economy: The concept of ‘circular economy’ helps to promote the shift to renewable energy and reduced waste in consumption for a more sustainable future.

”A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse and return to the biosphere, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems, and business models.”

  1. Co-benefits (of climate actions):Climate actions can bring multiple benefits to health, society, economy and the environment, which outweigh the costs of climate change. 

”The positive effects that a policy or measure aimed at one objective might have on other objectives, thereby increasing the total benefits for society or the environment. Co-benefits are often subject to uncertainty and depend on local circumstances and implementation practices, among other factors. Co-benefits are also referred to as ancillary benefits.”

  1. Just transition: A term embodying the concept that transitioning towards sustainable economic systems should promote social justice and acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives; aiming for communities to flourish rather than simply survive. A just transition will also recognise and privilege the voices and needs of communities who have contributed the least to climate change yet suffer the most from climate-related impacts.

”A vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift towards a sustainable economic system that ensures social justice.”

To learn more about key terms relating to climate change and health, please refer to our MJA paper,  55-term glossary or our Mega Database of Terms and Definitions (932 terms).

We intend to keep our glossary dynamic to keep up with evolving language and priority issues in health and climate change, so please contact us for any suggestions or updates that you would like us to consider.

Author details

The authors below, L to R

Matilde Breth-Petersen (BHSc, MIPH, MPhil candidate) is a research assistant at the Sydney School of Public Health. She has been involved in a range of research projects relating to health and climate change, particularly on the topics of extreme heat and social and emotional wellbeing, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing, and more recently on the carbon footprint of healthcare with Wiser Healthcare (www.wiserhealthcare.org.au).

Professor Lucie Rychetnik is Co-Director of The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre and Professor with the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney. She is also a Board Director with the Australian Climate and Health Alliance.

Professor Alexandra Barratt (MBBS, MPH, PhD),  Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney is an epidemiologist and health services researcher. She is a lead investigator of Wiser Healthcare (www.wiserhealthcare.org.au) where she is leading a stream of research on the carbon footprint of healthcare. Her research aims to provide an evidence base to support the transition towards zero carbon clinical care.

Associate Professor Ying Zhang is a senior epidemiologist at the School of Public Health, University of Sydney. Her work has been dedicated to research, education and engagement on climate change and health in Australia and internationally for many years.


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