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Climate change now officially considered a threat to human health and wellbeing

Climate change now officially considered a threat to human health and wellbeing

ANMF joined protesters marching down Bourke Street during the School Strike for Climate in March 2022. Photo: Melanie Sheridan

Many Australians breathed a sigh of relief when the Albanese Government’s climate change bill passed on 8 September, becoming the nation’s first climate change legislation in almost a decade.

It is now law that Australia must achieve a minimum 43 per cent emissions reduction by 2030, with net-zero emissions by 2050. While ANMF (Vic Branch) supports aiming higher sooner, the new legislation is a start – and it could not have come soon enough, with the 2021 State of the Environment Report revealing that Australia’s environment is in a ‘poor and deteriorating’ state, with climate change already having serious detrimental effects. Significantly, the 2021 report finds that ‘environmental degradation is now considered a threat to humanity.’

An independent, evidence-based review mandated by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999, the report is produced every five years, though publication of the 2021 report was delayed by the former Morrison Federal Government. It was released in July 2022 by the Albanese Government.

The 2021 report is the first holistic assessment of the state of Australia’s environment, combining scientific, traditional and local knowledge. It is also the first time in the report’s history that it assesses the impacts of environmental health on human health and wellbeing. ‘In this report we document the direct effects of environmental damage on human health, for example from bushfire smoke,’ write the report’s co-chief authors.

Climate change is here, and hurting us now

All previous state of environment reports talked about climate change in the future tense. The 2021 report no longer warns of the future impacts of climate change because climate change is having a significant, measurable – and worsening – impact now: the 2019-2020 bushfires and the 2022 floods being just two of the more extreme examples.

But heatwaves kill more Australians each year than bushfires, floods or any other disaster, and the climate crisis is making them worse: heatwave intensity in Australia has increased by 33 per cent since the start of the 21st century. Environment Victoria notes that ‘under a worst-case scenario where heat-trapping carbon emissions are not cut rapidly, Melbourne could see an unprecedented 50-degree day within decades.’

This has far-reaching implications, not least for hospital emergency departments and healthcare workers.

Our Future World: the escalating health imperative

The State of Environment Report’s release coincided with the release of the CSIRO’s once-in-a-decade Our Future World report, which identifies seven ‘global megatrends’ that will shape the next 20 years. The top three megatrends are:

  1. Adapting to climate change: with increasing natural disasters, we can expect to be living in a more volatile climate, characterised by unprecedented weather events.
  2. Leaner, cleaner and greener: an increased focus on potential solutions to our resource constraints through synthetic biology, alternative proteins, advanced recycling and the net-zero energy transition.
  3. The escalating health imperative: the pandemic has exacerbated existing health challenges posed by an ageing population and growing burden of chronic disease. One in five Australians report high or very high levels of psychological distress and there is heightened risk of infectious diseases and pathogens resistant to antibiotics.

Hope for a sustainable future

The 2021 report does contain hope, however. For the first time, it embraces Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural knowledge that if the land is sick, we are sick; and if you take care of Country, it will take care of you. ‘Australia’s past is the key to a better future’ it notes. Indigenous knowledge – such as traditional fire management – is helping to deliver positive change right now, for example.

ANMF, which has supported the Uluru Statement From the Heart calling for the inclusion of a Voice to Parliament since 2018, welcomes the report’s inclusion of First Nations voices. Learning from and empowering Indigenous management of Country is among the report’s recommendations.

What is ANMF (Vic Branch) doing?

In September, the Branch endorsed the Climate and Health Alliance’s national strategy on climate health and wellbeing for Australia, Healthy, Regenerative and Just. We also signed a joint statement by the Australian Health Community. The statement aims to:

  • send a message of support to the Albanese Government on its commitment to make climate change a health priority
  • express the health community’s interest in engaging with the Albanese Government to help develop and implement a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Wellbeing
  • highlight initial key steps that need to be taken, including the creation of a sustainable healthcare unit.

The Branch has also developed a range of resources and tools to support members in their own climate change mitigation and environmentally sustainable practice.

What else can you do?

As mentioned above, there are plenty of resources, courses and tools available at

The report’s authors also note that immersing yourself in nature, and encouraging children to do so as well, is essential. ‘Spending time in nature raises our understanding of its plight,’ they say. It’s also beneficial for your own physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Finally, it’s useful to acknowledge the importance of hope. Evidence links hope to health, and practicing active hope – ‘hope as something that we do rather than something we have’ – can also be beneficial.