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The Climate Wrap: health professionals speak out, why death certificates should record heat-related mortality, and bushfire inquiry

Amid intense global and national focus on the pandemic and recovery, a growing chorus of voices is calling for urgent action on climate change to avert an avalanche of health impacts.

Pre-eminent health and medical experts are calling for a #HealthyRecovery in plans to revive economies, and Australian experts say public health must be put ‘front and centre’ in a review of Australia’s environmental law.

Experts say the voice of health professionals is important in “putting an end to politics as usual” and ensuring broader recognition that climate change is not a distant threat; its impacts are being felt here and now.

The ABC’s 4 Corners recently chronicled Australia’s political ‘climate wars’, which have repeatedly derailed efforts to implement a policy response to climate change.

In an Australia Institute webinar earlier this month, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt confirmed that, for him, the “realities of climate, [had] been a 30-year belief”. 

Here, we review the latest news on climate change and health.


Nicole MacKee writes:

Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty and former Australian of the Year Professor Fiona Stanley are among 180 of Australia’s pre-eminent health professionals and heath organisations to sign an open letter this week warning that ‘failing’ nature laws would lead to further public health crises. 

The signatories have called for human health to be ‘front and centre’ in the review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), which is currently underway.

In a letter to Federal Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley and the Independent Review Panel, they note that the review is occurring in a period of “back-to-back crises of extraordinary scale” in Australia, with the 2019-2020 ‘Black Summer’ bushfires being closely followed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These events highlight the fundamental interdependence between humans and the natural environment and the consequences for human health when this is ignored,” they write in the letter, which was organised by Doctors for the Environment Australia and the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA). 

The letter points to research published in the Medical Journal of Australia that estimates prolonged smoke pollution resulting from the 2019-2020 fires has resulted in more than 1,300 emergency department presentations for asthma, more than 3,000 hospitalisations for heart and lung problems, and 417 excess deaths. 

Dr Fiona Armstrong, Founder and Executive Director of CAHA, says:

The COVID-19 pandemic and the environmental and climate crises stem from a failure to recognise that our own health is deeply connected to the health of the natural world. Our health is our wealth – without it, our community, society, and economy will suffer.

The government has listened to the science in its response to COVID-19, it’s time they did the same for the broader environmental and climate crises. Our health depends on it.”

The signatories call for consideration of an “entirely new” generation of environmental law and for individuals with public health expertise to be among those developing and delivering new national environmental law.

Global push for a #HealthyRecovery

The Australian letter came ahead of a global open letter to G20 leaders calling for a #HealthyRecovery as governments formulate stimulus plans in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The signatories write:

The enormous investments your governments will make over the coming months in key sectors like health care, transport, energy, and agriculture must have health protection and promotion embedded at their core.”

Signed by more than 350 organisations representing 40 million health professionals and 4,500 individual health professionals from 90 countries, the letter calls on leaders to use smarter incentives and disincentives in the service of a “healthier, more resilient society”.

“What the world needs now is a #HealthyRecovery. Your stimulus plans must be a prescription for that.”

Medical students speak up

Australia’s peak medical student body is also pushing for climate action to be the focus of the nation’s post-COVID-19 recovery efforts.

“As Australia gradually lifts social distancing restrictions and makes plans for a post-COVID-19 society, climate action must be included in recovery efforts,” says Daniel Zou, President of the Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA).

Zou says Australia’s COVID-19 response has been “appropriately medically and scientifically led”. “So too must the response to climate change and human health impacts.”

In association with the global School Strike 4 Climate organisation, AMSA mobilised health professionals to rally online earlier in May.

AMSA Code Green Project Coordinator Georgia Brown says hundreds of doctors and medical students had participated in the online rally.

“This represents the profound concerns about the severe health impacts from climate change,” she says. “As future doctors, we know that climate change will increase and change the burden of disease, and we need to prevent the health impacts of climate change to ensure the health sector is able to prepare for the climate crisis.”

Why health professionals’ voices matter

The growing number of health professionals raising their voices about the potential health impacts of climate change is in line with a call to action issued recently by CAHA’s Dr Fiona Armstrong.

In a chapter in a published book about the health impacts of climate change, Health of People, Health of Planet and Our Responsibility: Climate Change, Air Pollution and Health, Armstrong and colleagues write that the world’s health professionals are uniquely positioned to lead the effort to persuade world leaders to increase commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement goals.

They write: “We speak with not just scientific but also ethical and moral authority.”

With her colleagues, Armstrong argues that the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement – limiting global warming to no more than 2°C (and if possible 1.5°C) – is the “world’s most important public health goal”.

In their call to action, the authors propose an initiative to engage, organise, and empower a movement of medical, nursing, midwifery, allied health, and public health professionals to seek government commitments to double efforts their commitment to the Paris Agreement.

They write:

The voice of health professionals in putting an end to politics as usual regarding climate change is particularly important because, for many people, recognising the need for … dramatically decarbonising our energy future has been hampered by a perceived ‘distance’ from climate change.

The fundamental message of our proposed initiative is that climate change and air pollution are happening now, everywhere, and are harming us in profound ways – and that you have an extraordinary opportunity, right now, to ensure a better, healthier future for ourselves, our children, and their children.

Achieving the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement will lead to better health and more sustainable wealth.”

Bushfire inquiry underway

The first hearings of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements were also held this week.

The Commission was established in late February in response to the 2019-2020 extreme bushfire season.

Giving evidence at the Commission, Professor Lisa Gibbs, Director of the Child and Community Wellbeing Program in the Centre for Health Equity, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne, said it was “very early days” in terms of recovery from the mental health effects of the bushfires.

Professor Gibbs, who is also Lead of Community Resilience in the Centre for Disaster Management and Public Safety, said the impacts of bushfires on mental wellbeing, including symptoms consistent with diagnosable mental illness, could last “for years, not just months”.

“We always think in at least a five-year recovery framework from a major disaster,” she told the Commission.

“Not to understate people’s capacity to be resilient, because actually we see extraordinary capacity for people to process very distressing events and major disruptions.

But there is no question, from our research from the Black Saturday bushfires, that if someone has experienced a major hazard event like the bushfires we have just seen, they are at greater risk of mental health problems in the years afterwards.”

Call for death certificates to record heat-related mortality

Death certificates should record heat-related mortality to enable a greater understanding of the full impact of extreme temperatures, Australian experts say this month in The Lancet Planetary Health. 

They write that Australia’s national mortality records suggest substantial under-reporting of heat-related mortality.

“Less than 0.1% of 1.7 million deaths between 2006 and 2017 were attributed directly or indirectly to excessive heat,” they write, noting that recent research indicated that official records underestimate the association at least 50-fold. 

The authors write that, given the unpredictable nature and global scale of climactic and other environmental events, such as the 2019-2020 Australian heatwaves and bushfires, “it is imperative that systems designed to monitor national mortality accurately reflect the impact of large-scale environmental events”.

In an opinion piece in The Guardian, co-author Dr Arnagretta Hunter, cardiologist and human futures fellow within the ANU College of Health and Medicine, writes that in the summer of 2019-2020 Australians breathed hazardous air, watched on as rivers dried up, lived in towns without water, suffered through scorching heat, and survived intense bushfires. 

“Yet our death records for 2020 won’t record this,” Hunter writes.

“Death certificates will continue to reflect the heart attacks or lung failure, the injuries and the organ failure that occur at the end of life. They do not record the environmental factors that contribute to these fatal events.”

Further reading

https://croakey.org/calling-for-a-national-sustainability-commission-for-health-and-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-peoples-rights/

https://croakey.org/covid-19-has-our-attention-but-other-emergencies-are-destroying-our-foundations/

https://croakey.org/doctors-urged-to-engage-with-water-policy-concerns-and-a-timely-review/


This article is published as part of the Covering Climate Now initiative, an unprecedented global media collaboration launched last year. It is co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), in partnership with The Guardian. See Croakey’s archive of climate and health coverage.If you value Croakey’s coverage of climate and health, please consider supporting our Patreon fundraising campaign, so we can provide regular, in-depth coverage of the health impacts of the climate crisis, taking a local, national and global approach.

All funds raised go to a dedicated fund to pay writers and editors to put a sustained focus on the health impacts of climate change. Please help us to produce stories that will inform the health sector, policy makers, communities, families and others about how best to respond to this public health crisis.

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International Research Collaborative, Oral Health and Equity, The University of Western Australia.

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