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Climate change and health

2 Dec 2021

With a recent survey finding that more than half of the Australian health workforce are alarmed by how climate change is impacting health, CRANAplus is increasingly advocating for meaningful action.

Pho­to cred­it: Nan­cy Weatherford

The impact of cli­mate change on health and the sig­nif­i­cant threat to those liv­ing in rur­al and remote com­mu­ni­ties has seen CRANAplus take sev­er­al steps to high­light and influ­ence the need for action.

With CRANAplus close­ly involved with rur­al and remote com­mu­ni­ties through­out Aus­tralia, our organ­i­sa­tion is acute­ly aware of the sub­stan­tial impacts already being felt.

The issues raised in a recent arti­cle in The Con­ver­sa­tion con­cern­ing the Tor­res Strait Islands are just one exam­ple of this.

Drought con­di­tions have already affect­ed the secu­ri­ty of water sup­ply in the islands, requir­ing the instal­la­tion of mobile desal-ina­tion plants, and changes to tem­per­a­ture and rain­fall have affect­ed the range and extent of mos­qui­to species that are vec­tors for dengue virus.

The arti­cle relates how tra­di­tion­al own­ers in the Tor­res Strait are wor­ried that, if their con­nec­tion to their lands dis­ap­pears, their Indige­nous cul­ture will dis­ap­pear. And med­ical per­son­nel are con­cerned about cli­mate-sen­si­tive infec­tious dis­eases in the region.

Men­tal health impacts on the workforce

Pho­to cred­it: Cavan Social – stock​.adobe​.com

CRANAplus is unique­ly posi­tioned to pro­vide insights into how such changes are impact­ing health pro­fes­sion­als. As an organ­i­sa­tion, we take the respon­si­bil­i­ty of esca­lat­ing these insights seri­ous­ly, and are busy ensur­ing the rur­al and remote work­force is giv­en a voice in the cli­mate health conversation.

In July, we worked with Monash Uni­ver­si­ty and CAHA to pro­vide case stud­ies for a research paper on this very top­ic,” CRANAplus Edu­ca­tion & Resource Lead Kristy Hill says.

My key mes­sage has been that rur­al and remote health work­ers are impact­ed by cli­mate change already. We have wit­nessed this first­hand with our work sup­port­ing health work­ers in drought and bush­fire-affect­ed areas, pri­mar­i­ly from a men­tal health per­spec­tive,” Ms Hill says.

Dur­ing the bush­fires, health work­ers expe­ri­enced the loss of homes and infra­struc­ture, and the trau­ma of liv­ing through bush­fires. They also had to go back into work­places and care for com­mu­ni­ties trau­ma­tised by bushfire.”

Where does the health work­force stand?

Attend­ing a CAHA workshop.

Health pro­fes­sion­als are con­cerned about the health impacts of cli­mate change,” Ms Hill con­tin­ues. All the research shows that the vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties, includ­ing rur­al and remote com­mu­ni­ties, are at high­er risk because of lim­it­ed infra­struc­ture, a reliance on envi­ron­ment to make our liv­ing, and many oth­er factors.”

This con­cern has been quan­ti­fied in recent research pub­lished by the Cli­mate and Health Alliance (CAHA) with­in the Real, Urgent & Now: Insights from health pro­fes­sion­als on cli­mate and health in Aus­tralia’ report.

CRANAplus is a mem­ber of CAHA, which con­sists of organ­i­sa­tions which have come togeth­er to cre­ate a pow­er­ful health-sec­tor move­ment for cli­mate action and sus­tain­able healthcare.

Their report out­lined the results of a sur­vey of 875 Aus­tralian health pro­fes­sion­als, 45% of whom were nurs­es and mid­wives.
76.5% of respon­dents were very inter­est­ed’ in cli­mate change. 53% of respon­dents said they were alarmed’ by cli­mate change and an addi­tion­al 25% were concerned.

72% of respon­dents felt cli­mate change was already hav­ing a mod­er­ate to great’ impact on pub­lic health in Aus­tralia.

The most report­ed cli­mate-relat­ed health issues respon­dents were already encoun­ter­ing were heat stress (58%), men­tal ill­ness due to cli­mate change (54%), res­pi­ra­to­ry ill­ness from pol­lu­tion (52%), bod­i­ly harm from bush­fires (51%) and pollen-relat­ed aller­gies (51%).

88% of respon­dents said it was the respon­si­bil­i­ty of nation­al, state and ter­ri­to­ry gov­ern­ments, along with busi­ness and indus­try, to pro­tect peo­ple from health prob­lems relat­ed to cli­mate change.

The role of the health professional

Pho­to cred­it: On-Air – stock​.adobe​.com

Mean­while, the same study found that 80% of respon­dents felt health ser­vices and health organ­i­sa­tions should be lead­ing the way on cli­mate change action. 

How­ev­er, only 30% of respon­dents cur­rent­ly talk to clients and com­mu­ni­ties about cli­mate health impacts. Of those who do not, 46% said they’re uncom­fort­able doing so, in part because they do not feel well enough informed or sup­port­ed by their organisation.

Rur­al and remote health pro­fes­sion­als are con­cerned about it but don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly feel capa­ble and con­fi­dent to talk to their clients around cli­mate change,” Ms Hill says.

She encour­ages read­ers towards CAHA’s Com­mu­ni­cat­ing the Health Impacts of Cli­mate Change Resource, which is a help­ful guide to sup­port health work­ers to:

  • Speak con­fi­dent­ly about cli­mate change and its health impacts.
  • Recog­nise their unique author­i­ty to talk to the pub­lic, media, and deci­sion-mak­ers about the health ben­e­fits of cli­mate action.
  • Encour­age health ser­vices, clin­ics, hos­pi­tals, offices, and oth­er health care facil­i­ties to be envi­ron­men­tal­ly sustainable.
  • Pro­mote actions that reduce emis­sions and sup­port health, such as walk­ing, cycling, or using pub­lic trans­port instead of dri­ving cars; adopt­ing a health­i­er, plant-based diet; or switch­ing to renew­able energy.

I think most impor­tant­ly, we need to reframe the con­ver­sa­tion about cli­mate change with fam­i­ly, col­leagues and patients,” Ms Hill says.

We need to be com­mu­ni­cat­ing that cli­mate change is not a polit­i­cal issue. It’s a pub­lic health issue. That we as health pro­fes­sion­als have seen first­hand the impacts of cli­mate change on people’s health and that we need to act now to pro­tect our fam­i­lies and our com­mu­ni­ties, espe­cial­ly in rur­al and remote areas.

CRANAplus’ Posi­tion

Pho­to cred­it: Hyper­vi­sion – stock​.adobe​.com

CRANAplus has out­lined its own Posi­tion State­ment on the impacts of a chang­ing cli­mate on remote health, call­ing for an invest­ment in health ser­vices to bet­ter pre­pare com­mu­ni­ties, includ­ing strength­en­ing surge capac­i­ty for respons­es to acute nat­ur­al disasters.

Apart from the geo­graph­ic fac­tors which cre­ate iso­la­tion and lim­it access to health ser­vices, many rur­al or remote com­mu­ni­ties have a high­er age­ing pop­u­la­tion, mean­ing there is a greater preva­lence of chron­ic health con­di­tions. At the same time, jobs in agri­cul­ture, fish­ing, forestry and min­ing dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly expose work­ers to heat and oth­er risks.

The CRANAplus Posi­tion State­ment also out­lines how the men­tal health of rur­al and remote com­mu­ni­ties is also direct­ly affect­ed, with ref­er­ence to research, includ­ing a study for­mal­is­ing the fact farm­ers are sub­ject to depres­sion as a result of drought.

CRANAplus was a sig­na­to­ry of the #Healthy Cli­mate Pre­scrip­tion let­ter in the lead up to the Unit­ed Nations Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence (COP26) in Novem­ber 2021. The let­ter point­ed out that the sig­na­to­ries felt an eth­i­cal oblig­a­tion to speak out about the rapid­ly grow­ing cri­sis that could be far more cat­a­stroph­ic and endur­ing than the COVID-19 pandemic.

The health harms list­ed in the let­ter include air pol­lu­tion most sig­nif­i­cant­ly from burn­ing fos­sil fuels, increas­ing­ly fre­quent extreme weath­er events includ­ing heat­waves, storms and floods, and the seri­ous toll on peo­ples’ men­tal health.

In May 2021, CRANAplus was also a sup­port­ing organ­i­sa­tion of an open let­ter to Prime Min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son, call­ing on the gov­ern­ment to:

  • Pri­ori­tise health in the con­text of Australia’s nation­al­ly deter­mined Con­tri­bu­tion to the Paris Agreement
  • Com­mit to the decar­bon­i­sa­tion of the health­care sec­tor by 2040, and to the estab­lish­ment of an Aus­tralian Sus­tain­able Health­care Unit
  • Imple­ment a Nation­al Strat­e­gy on Cli­mate, Health and Well­be­ing for Australia.

Fur­ther­more, CRANAplus endors­es CAHA’s present cam­paign, Our Cli­mate, Our Health.

Build­ing from the find­ing that 98% of health care stake­hold­ers want a Nation­al Strat­e­gy on cli­mate, health and well­be­ing in Aus­tralia, this cam­paign calls on organ­i­sa­tions and indi­vid­u­als to attend events and under­take sev­er­al help­ful actions towards the devel­op­ment of
such a strat­e­gy

CRANAplus is also keep­ing a keen eye on the devel­op­ment of a Cli­mate Risk Mod­ule by the Aus­tralian Com­mis­sion on Safe­ty and Qual­i­ty in Health Care (ACSQHC).

The vol­un­tary edu­ca­tion will out­line key actions health organ­i­sa­tions can take towards envi­ron­men­tal­ly sus­tain­able health care. At time of writ­ing, it was being draft­ed and was expect­ed to open for con­sul­ta­tion in late 2021.

At CRANAplus, we have a role to advo­cate on behalf of rur­al and remote health pro­fes­sion­als and to lob­by the gov­ern­ment to take action,” Ms Hill says in conclusion.

We are active­ly pur­su­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties to dri­ve mean­ing­ful change. This is just the begin­ning for us.”

Have a sto­ry about how cli­mate change is affect­ing com­mu­ni­ty health or the work­force where you work that you’d like to share with a wider audi­ence? Con­tact us.

Read about our posi­tion on oth­er issues affect­ing the work­force and the health of Aus­tralian com­mu­ni­ties or our Posi­tion State­ments page.