To understand Aboriginal health and wellbeing as it is impacted by climate change, this submission will first briefly describe key characteristics of climate change, and outline their environmental consequences. The impact of these environmental consequences on the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people and their communities, will then be illustrated. Australia wide, heat waves cause the highest number of deaths of any natural weather event, and can lead to increased morbidity and mortality in Aboriginal communities (SHR 2019; CCoA 2014). Heat waves contribute significantly to the burden on people and health services with heart attacks, strokes, accidents, heat exhaustion and death occurring more frequently (Climate Commission [CC] 2011). Periods of prolonged heat can also lead to drought which, in turn, can result in significant food security challenges.
- Aboriginal people, their communities and ACCHSs are innovative and resilient. They have generations of traditional knowledge and expertise in managing and living on the land and it is essential that, in any climate change response discussion, that Aboriginal sovereignty and relationship with country is respected, protected and promoted. Engagement with Aboriginal people, their communities and ACCHSs must be genuine; they must promote two-way learning and must not be a tick-box exercise.
- Education and awareness raising for Aboriginal people about the health impacts of climate change is a first step in gaining support for adaptation and mitigation initiatives in communities. Information needs to be culturally secure, and available in languages that different communities understand. Consideration could also be given to the co-design and development of resilience activities including workshops, support networks, and mentorship programs by and for Aboriginal people, community members and their families. These resources must proactively foster resilience and prevent burnout.
- A commitment to building the capacity of ACCHSs is required. This not only includes increased, more secure funding, but also a review of the available workforce to determine strengths and potential opportunities. Aboriginal Health Workers, Aboriginal Health Practitioners, and Environmental Health Workers are experts in their fields, and options to enhance their impact and drive their potential must be explored.
In a recent report, the Global Health Alliance Australia (2019, p. 22) stated that ‘climate change will exacerbate existing health system inequities, as human resilience is shaped by location, physical condition, social status, poverty, control over resources, and relationship to land and food-producing systems’.
In essence, climate change will have the biggest impact on the health outcomes of the most vulnerable people in society. In most population measures, vulnerable populations are defined as women, children, the elderly, people with disability, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people can experience a cross-section of these identified vulnerabilities leading to compounded levels of hardship. It is, therefore, imperative that proactive public health efforts are prioritised to reduce the harmful health impacts of climate change on vulnerable populations.