Health and the climate crisis: How our human rights are being affected

Luke O'Brien examines the 'right to health' amidst the climate crisis.

By Luke O'Brien

Australians experience health differently. Accessing the right to health is highly variable, dependent on factors such as geographic location, socio-economic status, ethnicity, and age. While Australia is committed to the right to health, major disparities still exist, and these have only been worsened due to the impact of the climate crisis. Principally, the example that comes to mind is the health deficit in rural and remote Australia, compounded by the catastrophic 2019-2020 bushfires to which climate change significantly contributed.

What is the right to health?

Australia is party to seven core international human rights treaties. The right to health is defined as ‘the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health’ (article 12(1) ICESCR). The right to health is commonly associated with access to healthcare, but it extends beyond this and includes a wide range of factors that are determinants of health, such as safe food and water, adequate sanitation, nutrition, housing, gender equality and climate impacts.

Australia has sought to implement this through the passage of legislation, such as the Health Insurance Act 1973 which underpins the Medicare scheme, and the Aged Care Act 1997 which aims to promote the health and well-being of the recipients of aged care services.

However, one area of immediate concern that requires attention is the effect of climate change on Australians’ rights to health.

How does the climate crisis affect the right to health?

Climate change is causing more frequent and severe extreme weather events and is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century. This is because the effects of climate change are having a direct impact on people’s health. Research suggests that an array of adverse health outcomes are likely from hazards caused by the climate crisis. For example, increasing average temperature and extreme heat favours pathogen proliferation. Not only does this mean there is an increase in heat-related mortality and morbidity generally, but that there is an increase in food-borne illness.

Health and the climate crisis in practical terms: 2019-2020 bushfires

The Australian Black Summer bushfires saw 10 million hectares of land burn over a period of three months. The fires destroyed more than 3000 houses and directly resulted in 33 deaths.

Analogous to the Black Saturday bushfires, the 2019-2020 fires will also have lasting mental health implications, especially for those who directly experienced the devastation, as well as volunteer firefighters and their families.

Even without the ability to currently track and map the long-term effects, a range of short-term health effects have already been identified, the most prominent of which is increased cardiovascular and respiratory illness due to compromised air quality. Across New South Wales, the number of emergency presentations saw more than a 50 per cent increase during December 2019 and early January 2020.

Another consequence was the immense strain on the health system; medical practices burnt down, pharmacies and medical centres lost power, and supply chains for medicines were disrupted.

Meanwhile, the increasing trend towards hotter and more severe summers continues. From 2016-2019 there was a 22 per cent increase in the annual average days of population exposure to bushfires compared to 2001-2004.

While the Australian government has committed $76 million in funding to provide distress counselling and mental health support for those affected, and has established the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, climate policy continues to be controversial. This sentiment is explicitly expressed on the Parliament of Australia website and the Royal Commission did not expressly focus on the causes of climate change, or the extent to which climate change contributes to natural disasters.

Clearly, extreme weather conditions catalysed by the climate crisis cause health problems and critically affect Australians’ right to health. A governmental response is required.

What you can do

As much as climate change is an environmental problem, the effects of climate change also directly impact our health. Medical experts have joined the discourse and are now sounding the alarm. To support this, you can identify and contact your local MP and sign the Climate and Health Alliance’s petition urging immediate government action.

You can also support the research of Dr Emily Macleod of the Australian National University by participating in her survey which aims to understand the health impacts of the recent catastrophes, including fires and smoke.

The bottom line

Not all Australians have access to the highest attainable standard of health. Australians’ right to health is correlated to the ability of our society to address the climate crisis. The prognosis for the planet is quite bleak and the adverse effects to our health are exponentially increasing.

The Black Summer bushfires should be more than a wake up call. We should demand action on climate change so that the Australian government meets its commitment to ensure all citizens have the right to health.

Luke O'Brien is completing a Media/Law degree at UNSW and is an intern at the Australian Human Rights Institute.