Climate change is harming the health of Australians

And it will continue to harm tomorrow and well in to the future.

An Aurizon coal train travels through the countryside in Muswellbrook, north of Sydney, Australia
An Aurizon coal train travels through the countryside in Muswellbrook, north of Sydney [Jason Reed/Reuters]

During the paralysing heatwave of January 2014, Ambulance Victoria, the pre-hospital emergency care provider for Melbourne and rural Victoria state, could barely keep up with demand. Emergency dispatches in the region were up 25 percent above average, as heat-related disease in the metro area spiked five times above normal levels.

After temperatures finally dropped, following the hottest four-day span in Victoria’s history, the state government estimated an additional 167 deaths as a result of the heatwave. It would be reasonable to assume these were conservative figures.

Welcome to a warmer Australia

Over the past half-century, average temperatures across the continent have steadily increased, bringing more frequent heat waves that are longer and hotter than any in recorded history. Such prolonged heat waves are causing heightened rates of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke, and worsening existing health conditions like heart disease, and potentially even acute kidney injury. Tragically, children and the elderly are most vulnerable. While human health is the hardest hit by climate change, its impacts are far-reaching, with small and large businesses alike under threat.

In the short term, dirty air makes it harder for a child's lungs to develop, and can contribute to stroke and heart attack later in life.


The effects of climate change aren’t unique to Australia, but it does present a unique set of challenges there. Indeed, no country is immune, with climate change threatening to overwhelm the basic health and government services we depend on. The UK government’s 2017 national Climate Change Risk Assessment identified a number of “high-risk” priorities, including the infrastructure damage and health impacts expected from flooding and coastal erosion; and again, the effect of rising temperatures on the public’s health.

In response to this, many world leaders, have finally woken up to these threats. The Paris Agreement ushered in a new era of international climate cooperation, and even as the United States, the world’s largest historical emitter, pulled out of the deal, other economic powerhouses have reaffirmed their commitments to accelerate climate change mitigation. Last year, the UK government pledged to phase out coal-fired power by 2025 and are on track to deliver on this.

Australia, unfortunately, has been slow to act on the reduction of climate warming pollutants and on better preparing the health community to deal with its impacts. Instead, the federal government has worked to strengthen its ties and investments in the coal industry, leaving the health and medical community scrambling to catch up to their international counterparts in addressing climate change and health. 

However, a few days ago marked a turning point. Australia has taken an enormous step forward, as a coalition of the country’s leading health experts and organisations joined federal parliamentarians in launching a new Framework for a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Well-being for the country.

The Framework provides a roadmap to help policymakers and health authorities address and prepare for the real and present dangers that climate change poses to public health.

It cannot come soon enough.

Across the world, the burning of fossil fuels is harming our health. In the short term, dirty air makes it harder for a child’s lungs to develop, and can contribute to stroke and heart attack later in life. Through climate change, the most vulnerable and least prepared in society are most at risk.

Recognising the knowledge gap is one thing, but now the government must follow through and turn these strategic plans into tangible actions. If policymakers heed the advice and tap into the extensive expertise of the health community, Australians will be better prepared, and safer, when the next bushfire threatens a country town or the next heat wave hits.

Dr Nick Watts is a fellow at University College London’s Institute for Global Health. He is the executive director of the Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change, an independent and multi-disciplinary research collaboration between academic centres around the world at UCL. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.