Main Content

Climate change and health impacts – what do we know?

Climate change and health impacts – what do we know?

Dianna McDonald, Sustainability Victoria’s Project Lead Social Research/Climate Change Program

Do Victorians understand and care about the link between climate change and health?

To find out, Sustainability Victoria surveyed over 3300 Victorians in 2017.

Asking Victorians what issues they cared about, healthcare topped the list, followed by the cost of housing and living, the economy and jobs, education, roads and transport, with climate change trailing at the bottom.

Speaking at the ANMF (Vic Branch) Health and Environmental Sustainability Conference on 2 May, Sustainability Victoria’s Project Lead Social Research/Climate Change Program, Dianna McDonald, said Victorians’ priorities may have changed since 2017, with increasing coverage of the impacts of climate change in the media.

The 2017 survey findings showed that Victorians make the link between climate change and changes they see in their environment, such as bushfires, wild weather, air pollution, drought and crop failure.

However, as Victorians placed healthcare first and climate change last in their list of priority issues, they may not be perceiving a link between the two. When asked about potential impacts of climate change, those surveyed did not nominate ‘health’.

Meanwhile international health organisations have long been warning of climate change-related impacts on health, with The Lancet describing climate change as the biggest health threat of the 21st century.

The RACGP says doctors are already seeing higher rates of respiratory illness and infectious diseases – both impacts of climate change.

Sustainability Victoria wanted to know if they could help Victorians to make the link between climate change and health and bolster the importance of climate change. The department conducted further research, conducting interviews with individuals and focus groups.

When people were given information linking climate change to health and had time to process it, they began talking about health-related impacts such as melanomas, heat stress, mental health, and extreme weather-related deaths and disease, Ms McDonald said.

They also began discussing how caring for patients with climate change-related conditions might tax an already-strained health system and cause healthcare costs to increase.

‘Once they do get the link (between climate change and health) it’s highly meaningful to them…because they realise ‘Wow, these impacts could affect me and my family’,’ Ms McDonald said.

The research participants also perceived the climate change-related health threats such as bushfires and wild weather events as immediate, urgent and important, rather than a future threat.

‘They say “Tell me what I need to do. We’ve got to do something.” And it also increases their expectation that others should do something…They see government as having the legislative power and budget to do something.’

The research participants said they did not want messages about climate change and health to be ‘sugar-coated’.

‘They said “No we need to be scared about this. This is what will prompt action”,’ Ms McDonald said.

Sustainability Victoria is about to conduct another large survey of Victorians on climate change. They will also ask healthcare workers about their knowledge of climate change and health, and impacts of climate change they are seeing in the community.