From Townsville to Tuvalu

| September 9, 2019

Did you know that by 2050, northern Australia is projected to be the world’s largest risk area for the Nipah virus, a potentially fatal bat-borne illness that’s unknown in Australia today? Deforestation and changes to weather patterns are driving the bats south from their natural habitats in Southeast Asia.

Did you know that as a result of extreme weather events, pregnant women can suffer post-traumatic stress that can hinder their babies’ cognitive and language development?

Or that while 173 people died in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, more than twice as many people died from heat stroke and related causes in the heatwave that accompanied the fires?

If you didn’t know these facts, you’re not alone. Most people accept that climate change is transforming the global atmosphere and environment, but far fewer people understand the significant effects that climate change and environmental change are already having on human health.

From Townsville to Tuvalu, a new report written by the Global Health Alliance Australia with substantial input from Monash University, a member of the alliance, seeks to awaken policymakers and the general public to this rising challenge.

The report uses evidence and case studies to explore the impacts of climate change on health in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. It shows how the sense of urgency gripping international policymakers about the dangerous intersection between climate change and human health is not yet reflected in Australian policymaking.

Finally, it provides proposals for how federal, state and local governments might respond to this issue.

Above all, it argues that Australia’s aid, health and agricultural portfolios – and in particular its Official Development Assistance program – have an opportunity to create policies that would build resilience in our region to the threats to human health posed by climate change.

Planetary health

A feature of the report is its focus on the relatively new concept of planetary health. In 2015, the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health introduced the concept to a wider audience with its declaration that human health and the health of our planet are inextricably linked.

To Australia’s north, unclean water is increasing the spread of disease.

“By unsustainably exploiting nature’s resources, human civilisation has flourished but now risks substantial health effects from the degradation of nature’s life support systems in the future,” the 2015 declaration stated. It called on governments to take concerted and urgent action to address these effects.

Of course, these impacts will in the short term be less in Australia than in our region. Not far to our north, climate change is already raising sea levels, exacerbating the severity of natural disasters, reducing nutrition levels in food, and increasing disease produced by unclean water. All present substantial risks to the health of humans.

Australia, in contrast to many of its neighbours, is a wealthy nation with a high-functioning health system. It’s also an island. Yet Australians would be foolish to be insular on this issue, since its effects will also be felt in high-income countries.

For example, emissions from industry and motor vehicles increase ground-level ozone, which can make it hard to breathe and exacerbate a range of pulmonary  and cardiovascular diseases. Rising temperatures also reduce physical activity, which can lead to increased obesity. Respiratory illness is another consequence of bushfires and burnoffs, while floods can cause serious damage to our water stores.

Bond-building on climate change

As its title suggests, From Townsville to Tuvalu makes a strong case for understanding and building Australia’s bonds with the Asia-Pacific region when it comes to climate change.

If neighbouring health systems prove inadequate, pressure on Australia to provide assistance, even a safe haven for climate refugees, will grow. And rising temperatures and the resulting spread of disease know no borders. Illness-bearing bats or mosquitoes don’t need an entry visa.

The report makes nine recommendations for Australian governments. Some, such as introducing a benchmark national health survey that includes questions to understand the environmental causes of poor health, are focused on Australia.

Others call on Australia to do more to train health workforces in our region, and to consult deeply with health ministers in the Pacific before investing there. All recognise the inescapable reality of our interconnectedness with our region.

If neighbouring health systems prove inadequate, pressure on Australia to provide assistance, even a safe haven for climate refugees, will grow.

Launched on 31 July, the report attracted considerable media attention. The coverage was an encouraging sign that Australia is beginning to recognise the importance of this issue.

It’s vital to remember that while the threat is great, so is the opportunity. “Tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century,” argues medical science journal The Lancet.

Models produced for a 2018 study published in The Lancet Planetary Health found that savings from health benefits alone would compensate for the entire costs of mitigating the effects of climate change in line with the Paris Agreement.

We’re hopeful that From Townsville to Tuvalu begins to address a gap in Australian policymaking, and to inspire effective policy solutions to issues of vast and growing significance to Australia, its region, and the world.

Associate Professor Annette Bos and Professor Jane Fisher were contributing authors to From Townsville to Tuvalu.  This article was published by Lens.