Children will be hurt most by climate impacts on health

Doug Hendrie

14/11/2019 2:46:24 PM

Fires, floods, heatwaves, air pollution – the life of a child born today will be ‘profoundly affected by climate change’, a major new report has warned.

Mother and child in bushfire
The report found ‘without accelerated intervention, this new era will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives’. (Image: AAP)

As the world steadily heats up, bushfires are increasing in most countries, tropical diseases are surging and global crop yield potentials are decreasing.
More extreme heatwaves are proving particularly lethal for older people, while floods and cyclones have become more intense and dangerous.
The ability of people to work is reducing, with 45 billion additional potential work hours lost in 2018’s climate compared to in 2000, while the increased burning of fossil fuels has triggered a global air pollution crisis, with fine particulate matter (PM2.5) damaging all vital organs and leading to almost three million deaths in 2016.
These dire warnings are held in the 2019 Lancet Countdown on health and climate change, produced by dozens of universities and organisations around the world as a way to assess the ways in which global heating is impacting human health.
‘A business-as-usual trajectory will result in a fundamentally altered world,’ the report states.
‘The life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change. Without accelerated intervention, this new era will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives,’ the report states.
The report comes as lethal bushfires rage in Australian rainforests once thought unable to burn and as politicians spar over the long-term cause of the increased intensity of the nation’s fires. 
The RACGP called for action earlier this year, stating climate change represents an ‘urgent, significant and growing threat to health worldwide,’ with the World Medical Association, Australian Medical Association, and Doctors for the Environment Australia also recognising climate change as a health crisis.
The Lancet report finds the world is simply not getting on top of the threat, with many indicators suggesting the planet is careening down a path that will lead to an irrevocably changed world at 4°C warmer within 80 years.
‘We have no idea what that looks like from a public health perspective, but we know it is catastrophic,’ Nick Watts, executive director of the report, said.
‘We know that it has the potential to undermine the last 50 years of gains in public health and overwhelm the health systems we rely on.’
Human populations are concentrated in the areas most exposed to warming, with a mean summer temperature change four times higher than the global average between 1986 and 2005 – the global average population-weighted temperature is up 0.8°C compared to 0.2°C across the globe.

Growing health concerns for Australia
In partnership with the Lancet, the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) released its own national countdown assessment. It concludes that Australia remains at ‘significant risk of declines in health due to climate change, and that substantial and sustained national action is urgently required in order to prevent this’.
Australia’s maximum summer temperatures are already 1.66°C warmer than just 20 years ago, with heatwave intensity spiking by 33%. A potential 1.35 million additional hours of work have been lost due to extreme heat in 2018 compared to 2000.
The Australia-specific report introduced a new indicator of bushfire exposure, which found a 7% increase in the number of days people were exposed to fire between 2001–04 and 2015–18. These figures do not take into account the present record-breaking fires in New South Wales and Queensland, which have so far burnt more than one million hectares of land in NSW alone.

Senior author of the Australian report, Monash University Professor Tony Capon, said the current situation demonstrates the need for action.
‘The bushfires currently devastating the nation’s eastern seaboard signal the need for urgent action,’ he said.
Pyrogeography expert Professor David Bowman recently told The Australian it is ‘unbelievable’ to see rainforests burn.
‘If you had told me that Binna Burra was going to burn down and that was just the pipe opener to the fire season, I would have said you were nuts,’ he said.
‘But now we are seeing all these other iconic places like Wauchope [and] Nightcap Range burning and it’s so unbelievable. These are wet, subtropical or warm-temperate rainforests.
‘I am trying to remain on an even keel. It’s so serious.’

Climate-change-hero.jpgAustralia’s dependence on coal has given the nation the highest carbon intensity of all high-income nations​.
But the MJALancet report also signals longer term threats are looming for Australia, with the yield potential of Australia’s wheat crop – the major winter crop – falling 5% since the 1960s.
Other major impacts include heat illness, asthma, heart disease, injuries, mosquito-borne diseases, diarrhoea and depression.
Australia’s dependence on coal has given the nation the highest carbon intensity of all high-income nations, with our coal exports now accounting for a third of all coal burned around the world.
Professor Capon said addressing climate change will yield health benefits.
‘Cleaner air, healthier diets and safer, more walkable cities will benefit our physical and mental health, and yield increases in worker productivity and savings in healthcare costs,’ he said.
Doctors already seeing the effects
Doctors for the Environment Australia spokeswoman Dr Arnagretta Hunter said the nation is poorly prepared for the health challenge of climate change.
‘Doctors have been speaking out loud and clear about how climate change has been affecting Australians’ health and wellbeing … yet we’ve had little response,’ she said.
‘We are the developed country most vulnerable to climate change effects in part because of our already warm climate.
‘This week’s catastrophic fires along Australia’s east coast must be the defining moment when Australia stops looking the other way and does its fair share of meeting the Paris Agreement targets to limit warming to well below 2°C.
‘The health community will not be silent on the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. The level of concern among doctors is high.’
Dr Hunter’s organisation is running a petition for medical doctors to call on Parliament to declare a climate emergency.
Health Strike 4 Climate organiser and Cairns GP Dr Nicole Sleeman recently told newsGP climate change is the ‘greatest health issue of the 21st century’.
‘Australia is very vulnerable to these impacts. We will see health impacts both clinically and across the entire health system,’ she said.

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Dr Katriona Mae Wylie   15/11/2019 11:19:27 AM

Thank you for this article Doug Hendrie.
The Climate Crisis is a health emergency and GPs across Australia need to get across it. We can then educate our patients and protect them from the health effects of climate change. The fires this week have been a terrifying wake up call to how devastating the climate crisis is becoming, but are just the beginning. This summer we will see heat waves and all the morbidity that comes with them (heat stroke, heat exhaustion, MI, renal disease, food poisoning etc). We are already seeing increased respiratory disease, increased vector borne disease and of course we are seeing the mental health impacts of living in this time of great uncertainty and danger. I urge all GPs to join the Climate and Health Alliance and Doctors for the Environment to learn more about the health effects of climate change (or at least have a look at their websites).

Dr Peter James Strickland   15/11/2019 11:56:15 AM

This article shows that there are people who have lost the plot. Climate change has happened for billions of years. We are experiencing climate VARIATION at present caused by factors on Earth and our SUN, and not fossil fuels. It is estimated that 80% of fires are deliberately or accidentally lit according to firefighters. Population has almost tripled in Australia in the last 75 years with resultant land clearing for housing, industry etc., and we contribute minicsule amounts of world CO2, and with enlarging renewable energy uptake. People are living longer, not less, and the long-term solution to energy supply is nuclear --it is what runs the whole Universe!

Dr Krzysztof Wojciech Szatsznajder   15/11/2019 3:50:58 PM

Thank God for your comments, I started thinking I am the only one who thinks this way.
I agree with one point - mental trauma in children. Such unnecessary and fatalistic propaganda will have a very negative effect on our young patients and their mental health.
I saw a few cases of emotional distress in children during the Mad cow disease epidemic in the UK covered extensively on our television here.
I may ad, those days media saturation coverage was nothing compared to current hysteria.

Dr Peter James Morero   16/11/2019 1:26:56 AM

Can we get over the errors in thinking that result in this type of misinformation. While floods fires and storms make great headlines, they do not contribute significantly to the the global burden of disease. This is an availability heuristic error. Forecasts of the current and future impact of climate change (available from WHO online databases) do not indicate any significant acceleration in these impacts. The effect of climate change for high income countries represents 0.06% of DALYs, and 0.002% mortality. For low to middle income countries (lower income = higher impact) – 0.2 % DALYs and 0.32% mortality - higher but still barely measurable. Incidentally, the burden of disease for air and water pollution is over 10 % of the global burden of disease, and the impact of poor diet and lack of exercise also over 10 %. Health benefits result from economic development, education and public health measures. Adapting to and mitigating climate change is not a major health issue.

u44   16/11/2019 11:21:50 PM

Wanna know the evidence? Alright, bring it in tight. Over the last 200 years, the Earth's CO2 level has doubled. During this time we have seen a global 1 degree average temperature increase. Most of the temperature increase has occurred at the poles, meaning the difference in average temperature between the equator and poles has reduced. Consequently we have seen a significant reduction in the number and severity of freak weather events, despite what the media tells you. We have stabilised the environment and reduced the risks of freak weather events.
Not a single prediction made by the IPCC has ever come true. They have all at least grossly exaggerated and/or invented perceived threats. CO2 emissions have shown a gradual reduction during this time.