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Save on public health, go green

The benefits of taking action on climate change now exceed the financial and health costs of further delays. 

As a member of the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA), the Australian College of Nursing recognises the likely threat of climate change and its impact on the health of Australians, as carbon emission levels affect economic, social and environmental aspects of our communities.

In 2009, The State of the Environment warned us that climate change could be the biggest global health threat of the 21st century. Whilst public scepticism still remains around this issue, we do have the opportunity for immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the hope of critical improvements to population health.

Amongst the developed nations, Australia is at the forefront of vulnerability to the consequences of climate change. Not only are we experiencing adverse weather conditions causing physical harm, but also the health costs of coal-fired power in Australia, contributing to lung, heart and nervous system diseases, is estimated at $2.6 billion annually. The annual health cost of transport pollution is estimated at $3.3 billion. Climate change contributes to chronic illness, the spread of infectious diseases and the deterioration of water and food quality. These issues affect healthcare costs, placing pressure on public health infrastructure. Those most vulnerable in Australia – the elderly, the very young, and those in rural and regional communities – are more susceptible to disease in these conditions.

Of specific concern is our heavy reliance on coal-fired power, which supplies almost 80 per cent of Australia’s electricity. Research has shown the mining and combustion of coal can affect lung development, increase the risk of heart attack and impair intellectual development, not to mention the occupational hazards on coalminers themselves.

At this stage, public support for climate action needs to grow from a deeper understanding of the impact it will have on the health of Australian communities. Immediate action will significantly improve the health and life expectancy of communities by generating fewer days off work, fewer medical consultations and treatments and increased productivity. These outcomes can be achieved through smarter transport choices, healthier diets, more efficient home heating and further research and implementation of clean power.

In 2011, more than 30 global health organisations met in Durban, South Africa for the United Nations climate change conference. They urged the world to “recognise the health benefits of climate mitigation and take bold and substantive action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in order to protect and promote public health”. Practical aspects of reducing emissions include a decrease in the burning of fossil fuels for electricity and transport and the improvement of the thermal efficiency of buildings. Transport alternatives, in addition to lessening the incidence of heart and lung diseases, substantially reduce obesity, breast cancer and depression, and foster the conservation of Australian ecosystems. We cannot ignore that the health of people and the natural environment greatly affect each other.

There is a key role for nurses in promoting the health of populations. Nurses in the acute sector respond to casualties; they treat burns and heat stress resulting from the natural hazards associated with climate change. Nurses also offer unique leadership in the promotion of healthy lifestyles and, as always, are at the forefront of care when dealing with those who are particularly susceptible to pollution-induced health complications.

In the past, climate action has been talked about as if it were a cost to the Australian population and government. However, the available evidence suggests that swift action in cutting emissions may offset the cost of the reductions. Pursuing change will enable the Australian population and environment to reap the health benefits associated with cleaner air. But current climate policy in Australia falls short of what is required to prevent further damage and protect health. Strategies must be introduced to reduce emissions and improve health across the energy, transport, housing, food and agriculture and land-use sectors.

There is no doubt that the earlier we commit to research and action on climate change, the better the yield for all Australians.

Adjunct professor Debra Thoms is CEO of the Australian College of Nursing.


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