The flooding rains in NSW, southern Queensland, and eastern Victoria are another deadly example of worsening natural disasters made more likely by climate change.
A hundred years ago, climate-related natural disasters were rare in Australia. Today, they are more frequent and devastating.
As global temperatures rise, heavy rainfall is expected to become more intense. This is because the warmer the temperature, the more water can be held in the atmosphere. Climate scientists estimate that for every degree of warming, the amount of rain falling on heavy rain days is expected to increase by about 7 per cent. And increased atmospheric moisture can also provide more energy to generate extreme rainfall.
The most recent State of the Climate report, by the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO, showed that flash flooding had increased by more than 10 per cent in some regions of Australia in recent decades.
The Royal Commission into Natural Disasters warned last year that Australia should expect more concurrent and consecutive natural disasters.
Some areas of NSW have had back-to-back disasters in quick succession: droughts, bushfires, and now floods.
Climate change is a threat to human health
Floods and other natural disasters can devastate our economy, our environment – and our health. As well as causing injury and death, floods put people are at risk of infectious disease and gastrointestinal illness from contaminated food or dehydration. Mould inhalation increases the risk of asthma and respiratory problems.
The emotional and financial strain of natural disasters can cause or exacerbate mental health problems. After the devastating 2010-11 floods in Queensland, many people suffered long-lasting health problems. One study found that six months after the flood, people directly affected were five times more likely to report worse health. Many had mental health problems, including psychological distress, poor sleep, and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
And these health problems cost money. A Deloitte Access Economics report calculated that about half of the $14.1 billion economic cost (in 2015 dollars) of the Queensland floods was related to health, with a $5.9 billion lifetime cost from mental health.
Governments must do more
A growing chorus of voices is calling on governments to take action to protect Australians from climate change-related health risks. Most recently, more than 4,000 health professionals signed an open letter to the Federal Government about ‘the climate crisis and the impact it is having on the safety and wellbeing of Australians’.
Governments have not been doing enough. Australia’s current health policies do not adequately consider the increasing risks associated with climate change. Climate change is not once mentioned in Australia’s Long-term National Health Plan, nor is it listed as a national health priority.
Australia is not keeping up with the rest of the world. In 2018, the MJA-Lancet Countdown surveyed 101 countries and found that most had a climate and health strategy, including the United States, France, and Germany. But not Australia.
Governments can do more. Community support workers and volunteers should be trained in mental health first aid. And we need nationally unified action.
Just like the national committee of health experts – the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) – that has informed our COVID-19 response, we need a national forum of health experts to advise governments on climate change health risks. Specifically, there should be a ‘Climate Change and Health’ standing committee of the AHPPC.
The pandemic has made us all acutely aware of how public health actions can protect our personal health. Now we need to do it again.
* Anika Stobart is an Associate at Grattan Institute and a co-author of Climate change and health: preparing for the next disaster (Grattan Institute, December 2020).