Environmental sustainability in general practice

Climate change and health

Last revised: 12 Jul 2022

The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts 250,000 additional deaths globally from climate‑sensitive diseases (such as heat stress, malnutrition, vector‑borne diseases and injury) from 2030 onward. (5) Australia is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including species loss, floods, heatwaves, drought, storms, bushfires and risk of zoonoses. Climate change threatens the foundations of good health: clean air, safe drinking water, nutritious food supply and safe shelter. (5) It also undermines many of the social determinants of health, such as livelihoods, equality, mental health, and access to healthcare and social support structures. (6) These impacts are direct, indirect or social in nature.

An example of direct climate-change impact is the increase in morbidity and mortality resulting from higher temperatures and heatwaves, particularly among groups such as older adults and those with pre‑existing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. (1) The indirect impacts of climate change result from interactions of climate with other systems; for example, declining agricultural yields and quality caused by drought, resulting in poorer nutrition despite higher caloric intake, and changes in the distribution of vectors that spread infectious disease, caused by flooding and habitat loss. (1) Social impacts of climate change include conflict, forced migration and damage to livelihood. (1)

Critically, these climate‑sensitive health risks are disproportionately felt by vulnerable populations, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, low socioeconomic communities, migrants, older adults, and those with underlying health conditions. You can read more on the WHO website.

Climate action can have huge health benefits. The Lancet has stated that the response to climate change is ‘the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century’.(9)