Australian Medical Association Declares Climate Change A Health Emergency But What Does That Mean?

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Australia’s pre-eminent medical association has officially declared a climate change health emergency in a statement published Monday, following in the footsteps of similar bodies in the US and UK. 

“The AMA accepts the scientific evidence on climate change and its impact on human health and human wellbeing,” said Dr Tony Bartone, president of the Australian Medical Association (AMA).

“The scientific reality is that climate change affects health and wellbeing by increasing the situations in which infectious diseases can be transmitted, and through more extreme weather events, particularly heatwaves.” 

Though the AMA has acknowledged the fact that human-driven climate change will have a serious adverse effect on public health since 2004, this is them formally recognizing climate change as a health emergency. At the August meeting in Canberra, the AMA Federal Council said not only is climate change real, but the earliest – and most severe – effects on human health will be felt by many of the world’s most vulnerable populations, including those in Australia and the Pacific region.

Some of the Australia-specific effects it mentions include: a positive correlation between exposure to higher temperatures and mortality in some of the country’s largest cities (Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane); an estimated annual productivity loss of AUS$616 per employed person from heat stress; 2,177 deaths between 1900 and 2017 from extreme weather events; and a 13.7 percent increase in dengue-carrying mosquitos’ ability to transmit disease between 1950 and 2016. 

But what does declaring a health emergency like this really mean in practice?

A similar climate change health emergency was recognized by 74 US health organizations (including the American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians) in June 2019, who called for carbon pricing and a timeline for reduction of fossil fuel extraction, and have lobbied US politicians and presidential candidates “to meet and strengthen US commitments” to the 2015 UN climate agreement. The following month, the British Medical Association followed suit and committed to campaign for carbon neutrality by 2030. 

The AMA has called on the current government – who many have criticized for not being more ambitious on climate policy – to: adopt mitigation targets within an Australian carbon budget; promote the health benefits of tackling climate change and the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy; develop a “National Strategy for Health and Climate Change” and establish a “National Sustainable Development” to help reduce carbon emissions in the healthcare sector. 

“Climate change will cause higher mortality and morbidity from heat stress. Climate change will cause injury and mortality from increasingly severe weather events. Climate change will cause increases in the transmission of vector-borne diseases. Climate change will cause food insecurity resulting from declines in agricultural outputs. Climate change will cause a higher incidence of mental ill-health,” said Bartone.

“The AMA is proud to join the international and local chorus of voices urging action to address climate change on health grounds.”

While it’s a positive sign people with expertise in public health are championing action to address the impact of human-made climate change, it remains up to the politicians and legislators to enact their recommendations. For now, at least, these declarations seem to be largely symbolic – but time will tell.

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