Taking the heat off
our health

Opinion

This is a stock image showing the effects of climate change

Image: © istock.com/Getty Images/BenGoode

Image: © istock.com/Getty Images/BenGoode

Increased temperatures and extreme weather events are impacting human health. Associate Professor Linda Selvey says we all have a responsibility to change our behaviours. UQ can facilitate this by changing our health curricula.

I first wrote about the impact of climate change on health in 2002. I was a reluctant author. I had long been an environmentalist but I saw that aspect of my life as separate from my life as a public health physician.

Then a friend asked me to write a report on the impacts of climate change and health.

To me, health impacts of climate change seemed to be insignificant compared to the devastation of coral reefs, massive loss of species and rising sea levels.

I had thought that, while care of our natural environment and protection of our climate was important, it wouldn’t have a direct impact on people. And then the penny dropped.

As I wrote the report, I realised that human health and wellbeing are inextricably linked to the health of the natural world and to a stable climate.

Writing the report was transformative for me, not just in terms of the realisation that people's health is negatively impacted by climate change, but also enabling me to see the direct link between my two passions: environmental protection and human health.The last 10,000 years, the Holocene period, have been a time of unprecedented climate stability that enabled people around the world to establish agriculture, urbanise and develop other systems from which we have, on the most part, flourished.

We are now, of our own making, experiencing a destabilisation of our climate, with global average temperatures now 1oC higher than pre-industrial levels. This is accompanied by increased climate extremes – including extended and more severe heatwaves, severe floods, storms and droughts, and increased and more severe wildfires – while rising sea levels are already threatening the homelands of some Pacific Island nations and some Torres Strait Islanders.

How are these changes affecting our health? Let me count the ways.

We have already seen the effects of prolonged extreme heat leading to increased deaths and illness in almost every country on earth. Climate projections tell us that heatwaves will continue to increase in frequency, severity and duration. With heatwaves come fires and, following the severe fires in Victoria in 2009, fire authorities developed the term ‘catastrophic fire danger’.

A heatwave across Russia in 2010 led to extensive forest fires, with the combination of heat and smog leading to an estimated 56,000 deaths. It also led to the collapse of Russia’s wheat crop. Russia, the world’s largest exporter of wheat, banned wheat exports that year, resulting in an escalation of wheat prices and impacting countries that rely on imported wheat for food.

The millennium drought in Australia led to an increased cost of fruit and vegetables. While Australians didn’t starve as a result, some would have missed out on valuable micronutrients that are essential for good health.

Climate change is also leading to the spread of some infectious diseases from warmer to more temperate regions, while rising sea levels are causing salt incursions into groundwater, affecting the ability of low-lying nations to grow food. Ultimately, as temperatures rise, more and more human systems will come under stress.

This means that we have to adapt to climate change to reduce its impact on our health, while also taking immediate measures to limit our carbon emissions. From an academic perspective, an important course of action is to incorporate climate change needs into health curricula to ensure health practitioners of the future are prepared.

UQ’s School of Public Health is reviewing all its programs – including our flagship Master of Public Health program – in order to increase the climate change and health content across both core and elective courses. We are also increasing climate change and health content in the Doctor of Medicine program. It is our hope that UQ will become a leader in this important field.

Climate change is occurring as a result of increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. World leaders, including our own, are failing humanity by not ensuring the rapid reduction of carbon emissions through phasing out fossil fuels and limiting deforestation.

The good news is that reducing carbon emissions is good for our health. Reductions in air pollution, increased public and active transport, and decreasing meat and processed foods in our diet will make us healthier, while also reducing the risk of dangerous climate change. We can do this, but it is up to us to make it happen.

About the author

Linda Selvey is an Associate Professor at UQ’s School of Public Health, infectious disease researcher, and public health physician. She has previously worked as the Executive Director of Population Health Queensland and prior to that was Director of the Communicable Diseases Branch in Queensland Health. She has held a number of voluntary positions including being Chair of the Queensland Conservation Council for seven years. Linda was trained by former US Vice President Al Gore as a climate change presenter in 2007, and was the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific between 2009–11.

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