Summary

  • Climate change is the alteration of the world’s weather systems because of warmer temperatures brought about by human activity.
  • In the past 50 years, the rate of deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal have dramatically increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere.
  • Far-reaching effects of climate change include rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, adverse weather events and a rise in related health problems.
  • Taking action now may help us to avoid some of the more serious health-related impacts of climate change.
Climate change is the alteration of the world’s weather systems brought about by human activity. Direct impacts of climate change are expected to include rising sea levels, increased temperatures, changes in water availability and an increase in the quantity and severity of adverse weather events. Social effects and increased rates of related health problems are likely to follow. Climate change is also known as the enhanced greenhouse effect or global warming.

Without intervention, it is predicted that climate change will have far-reaching and catastrophic consequences for communities around the world. There are things we can all do now to build our resilience to the effects of adverse climate change and help slow its pace.

Causes of climate change

The main cause of climate change is an increase in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which causes the earth’s average temperature to rise. In the past 50 years, in particular, the rate of deforestation (tree felling) and the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal have dramatically increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere.

Projections for Victoria

As a result of climate change, the CSIRO predicts that Victoria’s weather will become warmer and drier over the course of this century. This means there are likely to be more severe droughts, less snow and frost, more heatwaves and increased bushfire activity.

Although total rainfall is predicted to fall, rainfall events will tend to be more intense with a greater risk of flash flooding. Reduced stream flow in Melbourne’s main reservoirs will have an impact on Victorian water supplies.

The amount of solar radiation reaching the ground is likely to rise resulting in an increase in the number of very high and extreme fire risk days.

The majority of Victoria’s population lives within 50 kilometres of the coast. Rising sea levels and storm surges may cause increased risks of flooding and erosion, causing loss of biodiversity and ecosystem damage that may result in changes to agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

Effects of a rise in adverse events

Climate change will cause a rise in adverse or catastrophic events around the world. These are expected to lead to severe health problems, such as:
  • Loss of life from an increase in the rate of natural disasters such as storms, tornados, hurricanes, floods, droughts and bushfires
  • Water-borne diseases caused by the scarcity of fresh water and water pollution
  • Health consequences for survivors of natural disasters – for example, disease, overcrowding and mental health problems
  • An increase in respiratory, cardiac and allergic illnesses due to worsening air pollution – for example, as a result of more frequent bushfires
  • An increase in gastrointestinal illnesses, since food-borne diseases are more common in warmer climates
  • An increase in heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and possibly death.

Effects of sea level rise

Rising sea levels and storm surges are expected to cause a range of health and social problems, such as:
  • Loss or reduction of livelihood and reduced availability of fresh food as a result of changes to agriculture, forestry and fisheries
  • Homelessness and mass migration – for example, some islands in the Pacific may be submerged if sea levels rise
  • Health problems related to living in refugee camps or similar temporary accommodation – for example, overcrowding and hygiene issues
  • Mental illness and trauma related to social, cultural and geographical dislocation.

Effects of changes to ecosystems

Some of the health problems that may result from changes to our environment may include:
  • Changes to the distribution of infectious diseases – for example, mosquitos that carry diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are generally confined to warmer areas. As temperatures rise, these mosquitoes will increase their range.
  • Malnutrition and other problems related to food shortages, particularly for people living off the land and in remote communities.

Impact on agriculture

Access to fresh, nutritious food is the cornerstone of good health. Climate change will severely decrease the availability of food in the Asia-Pacific region. The warmer weather and sea level rise will:
  • Decrease the growth season of most crops, resulting in smaller yields
  • Kill off certain fish populations and cause migratory changes in others, depleting fishing yields
  • Reduce rainfall and river flows, which will decrease the amount of crops and livestock that can be farmed
  • Flood fertile coastal ground with seawater, making it unsuitable for farming
  • Cause plants and sea and land animals affected by water and weather changes to die out, adversely affecting ecosystems
  • Increase the frequency of severe weather events (such as bushfires), which will interfere with agriculture.

Heat waves and health

Without intervention, greenhouse gases will continue to warm up the world. The resulting heat waves will cause a sharp increase in the rate of heat-related health problems including:
  • Cramps
  • Heat exhaustion
  • Heat stroke
  • Dehydration
  • Blood clots
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Heart failure
  • Renal failure.

High-risk groups in Australia

Some people are at higher risk of health problems related to climate change. Vulnerable people include:
  • Children – an immature immune system and the reliance on others for care makes them vulnerable
  • The elderly – pre-existing health problems can be made much worse by climate-related health hazards
  • People with certain medical conditions – such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, respiratory disease including asthma, kidney disease, neurological disease, metabolic disease, quadriplegia and other conditions of immobility
  • People who work outdoors – exposure to extreme weather conditions and air pollution increase a person’s risk of illness
  • People living in rural or remote communities – risks include drought, bushfire risk, loss of livelihood for farmers and financial insecurity
  • People living along the coast – sea level rises and increases in storm severity and frequency could cause injury, death or homelessness.

High-risk countries

While richer countries like Australia may be able to cope with some of the challenges of severe climate change in the early stages, scientists predict that poorer nations will be hit hard. Pre-existing problems such as malnutrition and vulnerability to infectious diseases will worsen dramatically. It is thought that millions of people could die every year as a result of climate change and mass migration may occur.

Emotional reactions

Predictions of doom affect people in different ways depending on a range of factors such as personality, resilience, life experience and values. Some common reactions may include:
  • Distress – for example, anxiety, depression, anger or despair
  • Indifference – for example, becoming bored with the constant stream of information about an ongoing worldwide problem that doesn’t have a ready solution
  • Scepticism – for example, believing that the threat is exaggerated
  • Cynicism – for example, believing that change isn’t possible
  • Motivation – for example, deciding to make small but significant changes at home to help protect the environment.

The costs of not taking action

Economic modelling shows that the costs of taking action (mitigation) now to address climate change is less than the costs of taking action later. For example, putting a higher price on goods and services produced from emission-intensive industries may impact on short-term competitiveness, but is intended to drive the economy towards greater investment in low-emission industries. Taking action now will help to avoid the massive costs of health problems related to climate change later.

What you can do

Australia has one of the highest rates of greenhouse gas emissions per person compared to other industrialised nations. If each one of us changes our behaviour now, we can reduce our impact on the environment and help reduce global warming.

Simple solutions include building local community networks for sustainable living, talking with children about their concerns and ideas, protecting yourself and your family from despair or depression and remembering to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’. Other ideas for positive action are available from Sustainability Victoria.

Where to get help

Things to remember

  • Climate change is the alteration of the world’s weather systems because of warmer temperatures brought about by human activity.
  • In the past 50 years, the rate of deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal have dramatically increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere.
  • Far-reaching effects of climate change include rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, adverse weather events and a rise in related health problems.
  • Taking action now may help us to avoid some of the more serious health-related impacts of climate change.
References
  • What is climate change?, Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victorian Government. More information here.
  • Climate change impacts on Australia, The Garnaut Climate Change Review. More information here.
  • Climate Change Health Check 2020, Doctors for the Environment Australia. More information here.
  • Climate change – what you can do, Australian Psychological Society. More information here.
  • Measuring the immeasurable: the costs and benefits of climate change, The Garnaut Climate Change Review. More information here.
  • Health effects of climate change in the UK 2012: an update of the Department of Health report [pdf, 5.46mb], Department of Health and Health Protection Agency. UK Government. More information here.

More information

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This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by: Department of Health and Human Services - RHP&R - Health Protection - Environmental Health Unit

Last updated: September 2011

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