Health impacts of climate change

Victoria’s health services and health professionals are already seeing the effects climate change has on our health systems.

It’s estimated these impacts will result in a fivefold increase of the cost of public health by 2050. This is a result of higher temperatures that increase the risk of conditions like heat stroke and respiratory problems.

To understand whether Victorians are making the link between health and climate change, we surveyed:

  • 3060 Victorian community members, aged 15 years and over
  • 700 Victorian healthcare professionals.

Research findings

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The health impacts of climate change are already evident.

The bushfires are a good example of how climate change can affect our health. Severe ongoing drought and hot dry weather caused by climate change are the cause for the recent Black Summer bushfires. These bushfires indirectly affected three-quarters of Australians. The resulting hazardous air quality saw Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne each experience periods of the worst air quality in the world. This is a direct demonstration of this link and the importance of acting now rather than later.

There’s an opportunity to bridge the knowledge gap between the public and healthcare professionals. Government agencies, local councils, not for profits and healthcare professionals can use these research findings to:

  • increase awareness and preparedness of the public and health professionals on the health impacts of climate change
  • develop policy and programs focused on improving the thermal qualities of Victoria’s houses
  • building resilience within our health systems’ infrastructure and health services
  • prepare for the likely increase in mental health conditions connected to climate change.

The need for greater public awareness

Victorians rank health as the most important issue to them, yet the majority have thought very little about how climate change might affect their health.

Even with this low level of prior consideration, 68% of Victorians acknowledge that climate change will have a negative effect on health.

That leaves one-third of the public unaware that health risks, such as heat stress and asthma, are likely to increase with climate change. This is significant because, in some instances, those who are least aware are most at risk.

The importance of thermal quality of housing

The groups most vulnerable to climate change health impacts include:

  • people with mental illness
  • young people under age five
  • poor or disadvantaged people
  • people living in regional and remote areas
  • indigenous people
  • older people, over age 65
  • people with existing long-term health conditions.

Poor thermal capability of housing stock and lack of awareness in healthy indoor temperatures creates a serious health risk. The thermal capability of housing will become more important as extreme temperatures increase.

Already, over half of all Victorians in public housing were too hot last summer or too cold last winter. As a result, 45% had to leave their home. This highlights the need for safe public spaces for vulnerable groups.

Physical and mental health

Young people spend more time than older demographics thinking about the health impacts of climate change and are more aware of, and concerned about, the physical and mental health impacts.

Most Victorians feel some level of frustration and other negative emotions, such as sadness, outrage and despair, when they think about climate change. Young people feel these negative emotions more strongly than the rest of the population and could be more prone to eco-anxiety. They were more likely than other age groups to feel they will cope ‘poorly’ in terms of mental health as climate change impacts increase.

The role of healthcare professionals

Most healthcare professionals believe the incidence of climate change-related health conditions will significantly increase over the next 10 years. This will put pressure on health services and infrastructure.

Only one third of healthcare professionals currently feel well-informed and confident in talking about these issues with their patients. Less than a third are currently having these discussions with their patients.

Despite this knowledge and skill gap, most healthcare professionals believe they could be doing more. This coupled with a desire from the public to learn more suggests healthcare professionals could have a greater role in communicating the health effects of climate change.

Resources

Linking climate change and health impacts 2020

Social research exploring awareness among Victorians and our healthcare professionals of the health effects of climate change.

Want to know more? Get in touch with:

Climate Change Coordination Team

dianna.mcdonald@sustainability.vic.gov.au