Taking climate action to protect public health

25 September 2020

By Suhailah Ali, PhD student, School of Public Health and Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research; and Kate Gadenne, Research Development Manager, School of Public Health.

Almost a decade ago, the first Lancet commission on Health and Climate Change declared climate change “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”. The impacts of climate change on health can be direct (for example, extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods and forest fires), or indirectly mediated through ecological changes (such as agricultural losses, water quality and changing patterns of disease) and social structures. There are complex interactions between both causes and effects, which also have social and geographical dimensions, with risks varying across countries and populations (Watts et al. 2015).

Here in Australia, the escalating climate crisis is exemplified by the 2019-2020 bushfires, drivers of which have been clearly connected with anthropogenic climate change. Almost 19 million hectares were burned; more than 3000 homes destroyed; 33 people lost their lives, and more than one billion animals died. One of the mega-fires in New South Wales was the largest recorded forest fire in Australian history (Filkov et al., 2020).

In the wake of this devastation, University of Queensland School of Public Health researchers established The Climate Change and Health Transdisciplinary Impact Research Network (TIRN) which aims to draw together the brightest minds in research, government and industry to form climate change research priority areas based on evidence.

Network spokesperson Associate Professor Linda Selvey said the network is seeking new Queensland-based members from across university, government, industry and community sectors, to help find innovative approaches to mitigate climate change or help people adapt.

“We hope the network can play a key role in ensuring research responds to government and industry needs, and will harness trans-disciplinary expertise,” she said.

“This united effort will position group members for strategic funding opportunities and show governments the value of investing in policies that will actively mitigate climate change.”

The network will initially focus on four priority research areas: Social and emotional wellbeing in a changing climate; Environmental exposures related to climate change; Food, nutrition and climate change; and Harnessing traditional ecological knowledge.

Since its establishment, the network has been busy. A podcast about the impact of the mega-fires on Australia’s food, water, environment, air quality and health has been released. Dr Fiona Charlson has published articles in The Conversation on the impact of climate change on mental health, and Dr Nina Hall, who is the lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has  published an article exploring how climate change impacts Indigenous health in remote Australian communities.

In 2018, a group of Australian health professionals in clinical medicine, public health, research and education (including Doctor Selvey) started a conversation by publishing a statement in The Lancet, with five calls to action to protect the future wellbeing of Australians and our immediate neighbours. Around the same time, a comprehensive assessment of 41 indicators tracking progress on climate change and health was published as ‘The MJA-Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: Australian policy inaction threatens lives’.

Today, 25 September, is a youth-led Global Day of Climate Action. This time last year more than 7.6 million people took part in strikes all over the world demanding urgent action to tackle the climate crisis. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in new forms of activism in accordance with what is best for public health.

In response to the stark conclusion of the first Lancet climate change commission presented at the beginning of this article, the central finding of the second commission was that “tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century”. This commission launched The Lancet Countdown, an international, multidisciplinary collaboration tracking progress on health and climate change – monitoring the transition from threat to opportunity. Their latest report concluded that “with the full force of the Paris Agreement to be implemented in 2020, a crucial shift must occur—one which moves from discussion and commitment, to meaningful reductions in emissions”, to ensure that the health of a child born today is not defined by a changing climate.

Join the Climate Change and Health Trans-disciplinary Impact Research Network (TIRN).