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The warming planet is already killing people, so health policy must catch up

The type of climate change the globe is currently on track to experience isn’t just about the frequency and severity of weather events. It’s about changing climate zones, desertification, ocean acidification. All things that affect food supplies and health.

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The World Health Organisation four years ago declared climate change to be “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century”. It estimates 250,000 people a year will die globally as a result of a warming planet by 2030.

Climate change is so dangerous to health that it threatens to unwind 50 years of progress in improving public health outcomes. Australia is just as, if not more, exposed than other nations. Heatwaves already claim lives in Australia. They will claim more. Countries close to Australia are exposed to vector-borne diseases. Changing climate zones will make us more exposed.

We need the impact of climate change to be much higher in the health policy agenda. We are significantly behind comparable countries in this regard.

The US is not a leader on climate change policy generally. However, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US actively promote, research and prepare strategies for the health impacts of climate change. Britain’s National Health Service has a sustainable development strategy and several European nations have identified health as a priority in their climate change adaption strategies.

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In Australia, we have no such equivalent. Our medical profession is up for the challenge – from Doctors for the Environment to the Australian Medical Association, which recently declared climate change to be a health emergency.

As one senior doctor put it to me recently: “Doctors listen to the science of climate change and its health impacts like we listen to the science of vaccination and the impacts of not vaccinating. They are as clear as each other, and ignoring the science of climate change would be akin to supporting anti-vaxxers.”

This urgency understood by our clinicians is not reflected in government policy. Consider the National Health Priority Areas, which are agreed between the Commonwealth, states and territories and result in action plans.
There are already 10 priority areas. Climate change should be one, too.

We need a national climate change health strategy. If one constructive thing can come out of the terrible months Australia has suffered, let it be recognition that the health impacts of climate change are real and need to be addressed.

Chris Bowen is Labor’s federal health spokesman.

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