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Author: O. Milman, M. Davey
Date: 30th April 2015

Report by the Australian Academy of Science warns extreme weather events will contribute to the spread of disease and disrupt food and water supplies.

Climate change will have significant repercussions for Australians’ health as warming temperatures fuel extreme weather events, help spread disease and disrupt food and water supplies, according to a report backed by the country’s peak scientific and medical bodies.

The Climate change challenges to health report, released by the Australian Academy of Science, warns that vulnerable people, particularly the sick, elderly and poor, will “suffer disproportionately from the worst impacts of climate change.”

The report notes that the world will have warmed by “at least 2C compared with pre-industrial times” by the end of the century, leading to heatwaves, droughts, storms and floods that will “lead directly to loss of life and will have a negative effect on the mental wellbeing of communities.”

Instances of disease, such as those borne by mosquitoes, are expected to increase as the climate warms, while high temperatures and disrupted water supplies will affect crops. In addition, the warming and acidification of oceans will affect Australia’s fisheries.

The report, which is backed by the Australian Medical Association (AMA), makes eight key recommendations, including programs to prevent health impacts upon the sick, the elderly, poor and those in remote communities.

It also calls for a new National Centre for Disease Control and a new National Food and Water Commission, to coordinate Australia’s adaption to a changed climate. Funding in agricultural research and development should be increased while greenhouse gas emissions should be cut, the report recommends.

The report notes that the IPCC has “high confidence” that Australia will have more frequent heatwaves and bushfire-prone conditions this century, warning that extreme weather is a “particularly serious health issue for Australia”, with the number of heatwave-related deaths in Australian cities set to double over the next 40 years.

Meanwhile, Australia could become more susceptible to vector-borne diseases, such as dengue, as well as respiratory diseases as people spend more time indoors avoiding extreme heat.

Conflicts over water in regional areas could flare, the report warns, while Australia could face migrants from Pacific islands threatened by sea level rises. Livelihoods in farming, fishing and tourism could be at risk, potentially deepening inequalities and causing mental health problems.

AMA president, associate professor Brian Owler, said the report provided compelling evidence of the significant threat that climate change posed to worldwide health.

“There will always be a few outliers, but the overwhelming bulk of the scientific community, including most doctors, think we are well beyond debating whether climate change is an issue,” he said.

“The more groups that voice their concerns over these kinds of issues, the more compelling it is for governments to take action.”

“This is not something that can be subject to political debate. That’s the whole problem with climate change, it’s a great frustration to many people that this whole climate change debate has been hijacked as a political debate, and unless we get past that and start looking at facing consequences and mitigating the effects of climate change, we’ll struggle to respond to its effects.”

Dr Ailie Gallant, one of the contributors to the report, said there is still some uncertainty over the severity of problems posed by climate change but that adaptation around food and water will be required.

“There is a broad drying trend in the south of Australia, so the type of crops we grow may have to be altered and our diet … may need to change,” she said. “There are all kinds of adaptation strategies which will mean that the things that make up our food basket will need to change.”

Bruce Armstrong, emeritus professor of public health at the University of Sydney and fellow of the Academy of Science, said parts of Australia currently unaffected by mosquito-borne diseases could soon start experiencing them as warmer weather pushed them south.

“We will experience more extremes in weather like we had in Sydney recently and also more heatwaves and more fire events, all of which have the potential for major health impacts,” Armstrong, a co-author of the report, said.

“We need to implement strategies to warn people well in advance so they know what to do, and secondly we need to ensure we can maintain health services and care for those who are isolated and affected.”

It would be very difficult to provide those responses without the support of the federal government, he said. It was essential the government release climate science and health data, he said, so that researchers could analyse the impact of climate events in real time.

“Because of the complexities of the state and federal health systems, and the fact that diseases don’t respect borders, we need stronger mechanisms to record what’s going on, and to monitor and research it,” he said.

“That’s not going to happen without the support of governments. I hope this report will be a nudge in that direction.”

Projections released by the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology in January show that Australia is set to have an average annual temperature that is 1.3C warmer in 2030 compared to the average experienced between 1986 and 2005. This will be accompanied by more extreme droughts and less rainfall in the southern portion of the country.

Beyond this, Australia could warm by more than 5C by 2090 if little effort is made to cut the amount of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere.

Australia, which experienced its warmest and third warmest years on record in 2013 and 2014, respectively, has already warmed by 0.9C since 1910.

Read the article at The Guardian