Briefing paper

Provides information, opinions and recommendations relevant to assessing the potential impacts of climate change on public health in Australia, as well as guidelines for decision-making in responding to these impacts.

It aims to:

  • draw attention to the potential impacts of climate change on health in Australia;
  • discuss the policies and issues related to the impacts of climate change on health;
  • present prioritised recommendations to decision-makers on policies and practices which may assist mitigation of and adaptation to the most serious of the identified impacts;
  • provide guidance which will assist appropriate people and agencies to allocate resources to the highest priority problems; and
  • provide a comprehensive list of references which provide reliable evidence about the potential impacts of climate change on health in Australia.

The immediate and longer-term impacts of climate change have the potential to affect Australian health and social environments seriously, and as such, demand and deserve attention by Federal and State Governments and agencies within the Australian public health sector.

Policymakers are faced with pressing issues of funding and delivering health services for an ageing society with an ever increasing burden of chronic disease and expectations of access to high-technology, high cost interventions. However, the impacts of future climate change on public health may potentially generate very large healthcare costs if current strategies for healthcare are inadequate.

Successful advocacy of new policies and practices by credible and influential groups must use language which can be understood by the people who are to be influenced. This advocacy must be supported by reliable evidence.

Climate-related catastrophes (droughts, floods, cyclones, other storms, bush fires) occur frequently in Australia. The demonstrably high variability in the incidence and severity of such phenomena present a challenge to scientists to discover and demonstrate any correlations between the catastrophes and the slow changes of climatic indices due to climate change.

Public health organisations must start to develop alternative, more effective, practices to manage the complex issues related to climate change while continuing to implement their traditional primary, secondary and tertiary preventive models.

A new approach, based on ecological principles, will be required to navigate through the complex and interrelating health causes. The public health sector must strengthen existing approaches for effective climate change adaptation strategies, including assessing regional health risks to identify vulnerable and resilient populations, collecting enhanced surveillance data and developing monitoring indicators.

This approach must be based on:

  • providing sound scientific evidence for predicting the likely outcomes and thus to take preventive or responsive action; and
  • reorienting the public health sector towards greater comprehension and use of ecological understandings and approaches.


Politicians, health bureaucrats and other interested parties must formulate comprehensive, coherent policies to address the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on public health, including allocation of appropriate financial resources as part of a National Plan for Health in Responding to Climate Change.

The National Health and Medical Research Council should be tasked with ensuring coordinated, comprehensive funding to support research into the health impacts of climate change.

Research organisations and health institutions must collaborate to develop cost-effective, long-term, longitudinal studies on the impacts of climate change on the physical, biological and social environments that will affect Australian’s public health.

Advocates must develop proposals which demonstrate cost savings to government over three to six years, or one or two electoral cycles. Little will be achieved in the current fiscal environment if proposed policies and practices will incur significant new budgetary expenses to governments or their agencies.

Managing the impacts of climate change on public health will also involve several other sectors, such as water, planning, building, housing and transport infrastructure. Appropriate institutions should work towards a multi-level, interdisciplinary and integrated response to raise the importance of the impacts of climate change on public health.

A comprehensive surveillance system would monitor the inter-relationship of environmental, social and health factors. Observational studies are important to monitor recent and present disease patterns and incidence to inform modelling of future disease patterns. They could also provide baselines for environmental health indicators, which can periodically be monitored and measured in order to inform program evaluation.

The public health sector must integrate planned, evidence-based adaptations into existing preventive activities. Useful methodologies might include:

  • a risk assessment approach such as Health Impact Assessment (HIA);
  • an appropriate range of Environmental Health Indicators (EHIs);
  • a “Driving force-Pressure-State-Exposure-Effect-Action (DPSEEA) framework”; and
  • a systematic ecological health framework.

The opposite of vulnerability is resilience – our capacity to respond to challenging or new circumstances. The factors which encourage resilience needs to be better understood. The public health sector must communicate concepts of risk, and develop strategies to encourage greater resilience.

To understand how we can minimise vulnerability of individuals and communities to climate change we must identify those populations which are most at risk, including those for whom climate change will act as a stress multiplier for existing public health problems.

The health sector must communicate climate change as a human health issue rather than just an “environmental problem”. The focus should be on effective, realistic and sustainable solutions rather than problems characterised as bleak and unresolvable.

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