Extreme heat affects the mental health of Australians in the same degree as unemployment, but Australian political action on climate change lags behind other high-income countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom.
As Australia approaches this morning, we are confronted with the inevitability of deadly waves. Our report published today in the Medical Journal of Australia concludes that the inactivity of politics, especially at the federal level, threatens the lives of Australian life.
Report, MJA-Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: Australia's inactivity of the policy threatens lives, based on an earlier publication in the medical journal The Lancet, which concluded that climate change is the greatest global health threat of the 21st century.
Climate mitigation – the greatest opportunity for public health of our time
Australia is the first to prepare its report at the country level. Developed in partnership with Lancet Countdown – which monitors global relationships between health and climate change – adopts a global assessment structure and methods, but with an Australian focus.
How Australians hurt
Australians are already facing exposure to climate change arising from an increase in average annual temperatures, heat waves and disasters. Australian deaths during 2014 Adelaide heatwave and Melbourne 2016 asthma storms are examples of the risk of climate poses to our health.
Keep a step ahead of the trigger trigger for the asthma storm
Our report was made by a team of 19 experts with 13 universities and research institutes. We were aiming to respond to what we know about climate change and human health in Australia and how we respond to this threat, in general.
To do this, our team examined more than 40 indicators that allow us to track progress on the broad and complex issue of climate change and human health. Health Impact Indicators included the health effects of changing temperature and heat waves, changing labor capacity, climate-sensitive disease trends, catastrophe mortality and food insecurity, and malnutrition.
We have also developed an indicator for the impact of climate change on mental health. This involves examining the association between mean annual maximum temperatures and suicide rates for all countries and territories over the past ten years.
We have established that in most jurisdictions the suicide rate has increased with an increase in the maximum temperature. In a climate that is changing in Australia, we urgently need to look for ways to break the link between extreme temperature and suicide.
In other indicators, we found that workers' compensation in Adelaide increased by 6.2% during thermal waves, mostly among outsiders and over 55s.
And we discovered that the amount of waves increased in 2016 and 2017 in the three largest cities of Australia – Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The length of the hot waves varies from year to year, but between 2000 and 2017, the mean number of thermal waves has increased in more than two days across the country.
We need politics
The slow transition of Australia to renewable and low-carbon electricity production is problematic, not just from the climate change perspective. Our report shows that pollutants from combustion of fossil fuels cause up to a thousand premature deaths across the country each year. We claim that even one premature death is too much when we have so much that we can do to get rid of it.
Australia is one of the richest countries in the world with resources and technical expertise that deals with climate change and health. However, the carbon intensity in Australia is the highest among the countries we included in our comparison – Germany, the US, China, India and Brazil.
The energy-intensive carbon system is one of the main drivers of climate change. Australia has once been a leader in the use of renewable energy sources, but other nations have since advanced and are living in favor of their economies, energy security and health.
Despite a certain progress that increases the renewable generation, it is time to really push our weight in the global effort to prevent acceleration against dangerous climate change.
Political leaders must take steps to protect human health and life. This includes strong political and financial commitments to accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources and the production of low-carbon electricity. The government lacks detailed planning of a cleaner future with a secure supply of energy.
How would a fair transition of energy look like?
The MJA-Lancet Countdown report report will be updated annually. Now that Australia has begun systematically monitoring the effects of climate change on health – and given the poor results compared to comparable economies on a global scale, further inactivity would be ruthless.