Most people accept that climate change is transforming the global atmosphere and environment. Yet far fewer understand the significant impacts that climate and environmental change are having on human health. In the Asia Pacific region, climate change is raising sea levels, exacerbating the severity of natural disasters, reducing nutrition levels in food and increasing disease produced by unclean water. All present substantial risks for the health of humans, including Australians.
This policy paper by the Global Health Alliance Australia highlights evidence and case studies to show how climate and environmental change will affect human health in the Asia Pacific region. It provides proposals for how Australian governments - federal, state and local - might respond to this challenge, arguing that Australia’s aid, health and agricultural portfolios have an opportunity to develop policies that build resilience in our region to the impacts of climate change on human health. Such an approach would elevate Australia’s standing in the region. The benefits are also closer to home, in terms of reduced health risks, and improved political, health and economic security for Australians.
Australia has longstanding commitments to the region, notably through its Official Development Assistance program, but also through a host of government and non-government initiatives. Australia has a major opportunity to build on these efforts by supporting its partner countries to develop their resilience to the health impacts of climate change. This paper identifies three areas in which climate change will have a major impact – on political, economic and health systems, on the risk of disease, and on vulnerable populations – before proposing potential policy responses.
The paper uses the concept of planetary health to show that environmental and human health cannot be separated. It also argues that climate and environmental change will affect the health of all citizens of the Asia Pacific region, including Australians. The health effects will be different across the region and Australians are also vulnerable to many climaterelated health issues, including heat stress, air pollution, and cardiorespiratory illness caused by burning fossil fuels and fires.
Disease knows no borders. For example, the Nipah virus, a bat-borne disease that causes fatal infections in humans and pigs in South-East Asia is largely unknown in Australia today. But climate change and loss of natural habitat are pushing it closer to human populations. By 2050 Northern Australia will be at a far greater risk of this deadly virus becoming established domestically. In addition, if neighbouring health systems prove inadequate, pressure on Australia to provide assistance, even a safe haven for climate refugees, will grow.
The link between environmental and human health has not been at the centre of Australian policymaking. This paper hopes to redress that gap, and to inspire effective policy solutions to an issue of vast and growing significance to Australia, its region, and the world.