Call for urgent climate-health action plan

·3-min read

Health leaders are calling for the rapid rollout of a climate-health action plan as floods and extreme heat kill Australians.

Forty health and medical organisations warn pressure on the health system from climate change is growing as additional deaths add to the strain of a global pandemic.

Nurses, midwives, psychologists, the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) and others on Monday issued a set of urgent recommendations.

RACP president Jacqueline Small said doctors had a unique view and considerable experience of how climate health and human health fit together, and knew their communities.

"We see the impacts of climate change all the time, on our patients, and on our staff who are at the front line dealing with crises every day," Dr Small said.

The Albanese government intends to develop a national strategy on climate, health and wellbeing but is being urged to hurry.

Health Minister Mark Butler told AAP climate health will be a national health priority under Australia's first combined strategy.

"The World Health Organisation describes climate change as the single biggest health threat facing humanity," he said.

"And in a country like Australia where climate already pushes us right up against the limits of human tolerance we know it is imperative to act."

The health groups want a new ministerial forum and a national health vulnerability and capacity assessment to find those most susceptible to climate harm.

"Climate change is already killing Australians," Climate and Health Alliance founder Fiona Armstrong said.

Thirty-three people were killed directly by fires during the 2019-20 bushfire season across southeastern Australia.

Hospitals estimate 445 people died from smoke inhalation, with more than 3000 admitted to hospital for respiratory problems and 1700 because of asthma.

Some 23 people died in floods this year following a three-week deluge of rain along the east coast.

The Northern Rivers region surrounding Lismore continues to struggle with the clean-up, lack of housing, mental health stress and disease from "flood mud" contaminated by sewage, chemicals and rotting matter.

Health services also need to cut their own emissions, whether electrifying food preparation and transport, or running less carbon-intensive buildings.

The health sector is responsible for seven per cent of national emissions, prompting the Better Futures Forum meeting at UNSW Canberra to propose a practical framework.

Hospitals, surgeries and clinics are energy intensive, and produce mountains of waste each year.

Solutions include more telehealth, streamlining patient movement, sustainable procurement and new water and waste management strategies, health leaders said.

A Sustainable Healthcare Unit in the Department of Health, similar to the United Kingdom, could guide the health sector towards more sustainable operations.

For example, anaesthetic "gas scavenging" removes gases directly from the patient connection in operating theatres, to lower the climate impact and reduce the re-breathing of volatile gases.

Reprocessing single-use devices would save tonnes of waste, and staff training reduces chemical use and improves waste disposal.

The UK cut health emissions by 11 per cent in 10 years, even as healthcare activity increased.