Climate change: what’s it got to do with health?

Young girl wearing a head lamp is looking up at the surrounding trees

By Dr Robyn Littlewood, Chief Executive, Health and Wellbeing Queensland
Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe, Griffith University and Health and Wellbeing Queensland Board member

In Queensland, we have had a multitude of challenges to contend with. COVID-19, bushfires and floods have truly had an impact on the lives of Queenslanders, especially those most vulnerable. Our physical health and our mental health have suffered. For some of us, our financial security has deteriorated and we now find it even more difficult to put food on the table for our loved ones.

So why on earth should we worry about climate change?

Put simply, it’s to protect the health and wellbeing of future generations of Queenslanders. The way we see it, we have a public health opportunity that can improve the health of Queenslanders. We can explain how.

The Queensland Government established Health and Wellbeing Queensland, the first Public Health agency to support complicated, complex, and challenging issues that are and will continue to impact the health and lives of Queenslanders. This state will continue to lead by investment but also by example. Let’s start with tackling climate change and its impacts on health.  The first step is to understand the link between the two.

The health of Queenslanders goes hand in hand with planetary health

When we think of climate change, most of us think about the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such heat waves, bushfires, floods, droughts and storms. It still seems hard to make the connection between this and poor health. However, did you know that climate change does not just mean an increase in average temperature year after year? It has dramatically increased the number of very hot days that we experience. One figure demonstrates this. From 1900 to 1980, in an average year there were 3 or 4 days that were the hottest in our recorded history. In 2020, a remarkable 43 days were the hottest ever recorded. Heat waves are a direct threat to human health.

With hot weather, vegetation gets drier and the risk of severe bushfires increases. The fires of the 2019-20 summer were unprecedented. A hotter world means more water goes into the atmosphere resulting in more intense rainfall events like the so-called ‘rain bomb’ that hit South East Queensland and northern New South Wales earlier this year. These events destroy huge areas of natural vegetation, thousands of homes and significant public infrastructure, and result in loss of human lives.

The damage (physical, financial and mental health impact) doesn’t repair itself overnight. The effects of such devastating events can be long-lasting and life-altering. Unpredictable climate is causing distress and mental health issues, particularly for Queenslanders in rural areas. As rural production struggles, so do the towns that depend on the farming sector. “Eco-anxiety” is emerging for children and young people as they struggle with foreseeable deterioration of our planet. Educators reported that their students commonly experienced feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, anxious, angry, sad and frustrated when engaging with ecological crises.

Healthy people are needed to maintain a healthy planet

Helping people to be healthy can have positive environmental outcomes. This can help reduce the health care sector’s environmental footprint by decreasing carbon emissions, waste production, water and energy usage, and inefficient models of care. Prioritising preventive health can keep people out of the health system.

Current efforts in public health

According to the world’s leading medical journal, The Lancet, global efforts to tackle climate change represent one of the greatest opportunities to improve public health this century. At Health and Wellbeing Queensland we are working together to understand the link between climate change and health and then support the work needed to protect our health as we learn how. It’s simply the best thing we can do to improve the life expectancy of our next generation, to ensure our children live the longest and healthiest lives they are entitled to.

Our food system

Right now recent climate events are impacting the security of our food and the availability and price of healthy food. In Queensland, the McKell Institute’s Food Insecurity Index shows Central and North Queensland have a food insecurity score 60% higher than inner Brisbane. We are working with remote and First Nation communities to support local sustainable food production, access to healthy food, and healthy homes so households can choose, prepare, cook and store healthy food options at all times. This also results in less transportation of food which reduces the carbon footprint across the supply chain.

Working locally and strengthening farmer and food connections is important and a part of our Pick of the Crop program supporting schools to boost children’s intake of vegetables and fruit through locally agreed school action plans.

Food security directly effects the health of the diets we provide for our families.

Our diets play a role in climate change. Healthy diets have an appropriate energy intake and consist of a diversity of plant-based foods, low amounts of animal source foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats, and small amounts of refined grains. We need these foods to be available and accessible to our communities right across Queensland. Our job is not only to support agriculture to produce such healthy food but also to ensure it is accessible and affordable for Queenslanders – no matter where they live. One way we are doing that is through a strong partnership with the Queensland Country Women’s Association Country Kitchens program. Together, we want to empower Queenslanders, particularly those living in rural, regional and remote communities to advocate for healthier environments, promote healthy food consumption and adopt healthier lifestyle behaviours.

But the journey has only started.  We are focussed on food production to distribution, marketing, waste recovery and consumption.   It is our farmers that remain our focus. They are so important to our environment, which directly impacts our health.   

Our physical activity system

Using petroleum fuels for urban transport directly causes local air pollution which causes a range of respiratory diseases. This is where Brisbane should be congratulated on public transport. Brisbane City Council decided more than twenty years ago to phase out diesel buses and replace them with gas-powered vehicles, a policy which has contributed to significantly cleaner air.

But many people commute by car in our towns and cities, a practice which is both causing worse air pollution and directly causing injuries from road accidents, a problem that is so predictable we call it “the road toll”.

Lack of physical activity is also a contributor to people living with overweight or obesity. Those who walk or cycle to work or study or shops obviously get more exercise, but so do those who use public transport, which requires walking to and from the journey end-points. So we need to think not just about transport choices, but also about the urban planning decisions that determine whether the services people use regularly are within walking or cycling distance, or at least accessible by reliable and safe public transport.

The Queensland Government is collaborating in this area with three government strategies currently in action – Activate! Queensland Strategy 2019-2029, the Queensland Walking Strategy 2019-2029 and Queensland Cycling Strategy 2017-2027. Improving public transport and providing safer facilities for active transport, walking and cycling, is good for the environment but also provides direct health benefits for individuals.

The public health opportunity is now for the next generation of Queenslanders

Climate change affects our health, and what people do affects the health of our planet. The most exciting part about this story is that we can make a difference and to drive real change, more than ever before. When we include thinking about planetary health, the co-benefits are immense: health (such as better nutrition and reduced obesity rates), economic (people can be more physically active with an environment that supports them to do so) and environmental (helping our farmers to navigate the challenges the current weather and climate is throwing at them). 

In fact, Health and Wellbeing Queensland is focused on most of these factors right now. Strategies are already under way supporting the environment, parts of the health system and of course supporting individual Queensland children and families. 

This is all through the development of a Queensland Obesity Prevention Strategy and Action Plan. You can have your say right now by clicking here

Queensland Government through Health and Wellbeing Queensland has a vision to create a generational shift that will better the lives of Queensland’s children and young people, for this generation and the next to live healthier, more active lives. We call it Generation Queensland (GenQ) and we are relentless about bringing together government and our many partners to create this better future.