Climate change and health (2022)

Our health is closely linked to the environment we live in. However, our climate is changing, with significant consequences for our health, wellbeing and safety.

Climate change is a change in the world’s weather systems that occurs over decades. Most of the recent changes in our climate have been brought about by human activity. Without intervention, the changing climate will have far-reaching and catastrophic consequences for our state, the country and the rest of the world. It is an urgent problem with implications at the global, national, community and personal level.

The good news is that there are simple things we can all do now to build our resilience to the effects of climate change and help slow its pace. Many of these actions will also directly benefit our health, the environment and our wallets.

Climate change

Climate change is caused by increases in the amount of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) in the atmosphere, which cause the earth’s average temperature to rise.

Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, raising air and sea temperatures. They are primarily produced through the burning of fossil fuels (like coal) for electricity generation, as well as through agricultural, mining, land management and transport practices.

The effects of climate change are already being felt. Because of global warming, Australia’s climate has warmed on average by 1.4°C since official Bureau of Meteorology records began in 1910.

In Victoria, the average temperature has increased by just over 1.0°C across the state since 1910. With this amount of warming, Victoria is already experiencing:

  • an increase in the frequency of days of extreme heat
  • an increase in dangerous fire weather and length of fire seasons
  • a decline in cool season rainfall, resulting in the lowest streamflow on record over the past decades
  • a rise in sea levels.

In recent decades, Victoria's climate has changed by becoming warmer and drier. Victorian climate projections by the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology suggest these changes will continue into the future. Climate projections for Victoria suggest:

  • further increases in the number of very hot days and extreme heat
  • the number of very high fire danger days increasing and the fire season being prolonged
  • average annual rainfalls decreasing and a continuous decline in streamflow affecting the health of waterways and Victorian water supplies
  • extreme rainfall being of a higher intensity, potentially increasing the risk of flash flooding in some locations
  • coastal sea levels continuing to rise.

Most of Victoria’s population lives within 50 kilometres of the coast. Rising sea levels and storm surges will increase risks of flooding and erosion, endangering life, damaging property and causing ecosystem damage that may affect agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism.

Read more about climate change in Victoria and Australia.

Health effects of climate change

View Climate change and health video page for English and translated transcripts.

Climate change has been described by the World Health Organization as the biggest threat to health in the 21st century – it affects health and wellbeing in many ways:

  • Directly, by the increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events (such as heatwaves, floods and bushfires); and
  • Indirectly, through worsening air quality, changes in the spread of infectious diseases, threats to food and water and effects on mental health.

Climate change will also impact certain parts of the economy with increased unemployment, financial stress, food insecurity, and rising social inequalities.

Who is most at risk of health effects due to climate change?

Some people are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and health:

  • Children are vulnerable for several reasons. For example, children are more susceptible to heat stress and dehydration and are more sensitive to exposure to air pollution and smoke from bushfires. Their immune systems are not fully developed, putting them at increased risk of infections. They often need to rely on adults to keep them safe during emergencies and help them to recover afterwards.
  • Pregnant women are at increased risk of heat stress during heatwaves due to the physiological demands of pregnancy. They and their unborn babies are particularly sensitive to exposure to air pollution and smoke from bushfires.
  • Older people and people with pre-existing medical conditions are more prone to dehydration, heat stress, infections and exacerbation of heart and lung disease.
  • People living in rural and remote areas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people on low incomes and other vulnerable populations are also at increased risk, in part due to inequalities in underlying health outcomes and limited accessibility of healthcare and other services. People living in rural or remote communities or along the coast are also at risk from extreme events such as bushfires, droughts, storms and sea level rises.

Extreme weather events

The effects of climate change are already being felt through more frequent and increasingly severe extreme weather events such as floods, severe storms and heatwaves.

View Climate change and health – Extreme weather events video page for English and translated transcripts.

Staying healthy in a changing climate

There are many simple actions you can take to protect yourself and your family from the impacts of climate change.

View Climate change and health – Staying healthy in a changing climate video page for English and translated transcripts.

How to cope and stay safe in extreme heat

Over the last century, average temperatures in Australia have increased and heatwaves have become longer, hotter and more frequent. This trend is expected to continue as the world gets even warmer. You can stay healthy in the heat by:

  • drinking plenty of water
  • never leaving anyone in a car
  • staying somewhere cool
  • planning ahead
  • checking in on others.

Read more about how to cope and stay safe in extreme heat.

Stay safe from mosquito bites

Warmer average temperatures can mean earlier spring seasons, longer warm seasons, shorter winters, hotter summers and more frequent flooding events. As a result, conditions may become more hospitable for mosquitoes that can carry diseases such as Ross River virus disease and Murray Valley encephalitis.

You can protect yourself and your family from mosquito bites by:

  • wearing loose-fitting clothing when outdoors
  • using mosquito repellents containing DEET or picaridin on exposed skin
  • trying to limit outdoor activity if lots of mosquitoes are about
  • making sure there is no stagnant water where mosquitoes can breed around your home
  • ensuring your house is properly fitted with mosquito netting or screens.

Read about more ways to protect yourself from mosquito-borne disease.

Avoid risks from floods and minimise health risks in natural waterways

Warmer temperatures can result in a number of health risks to swimmers, including exposure to toxins from blue-green algal blooms, which are expected to become more frequent with climate change.

You can minimise these risks by:

  • avoiding swimming at beaches or in waterways after heavy rainfall events, including floods
  • looking out for any water quality advisories following flooding events or in response to blue-green algal blooms
  • checking the EPA’s Summer water quality website for water quality forecasts for 36 beaches in Port Phillip Bay and four sites along the Yarra River over the summer months.

Learn more about avoiding risks from flooding and beach water quality.

Be a healthy swimmer

Cryptosporidiosis outbreaks associated with swimming pools are expected to become more common due to increased patronage of swimming pools on hot days. Follow these healthy swimming tips to keep the water clean:

  • Do not swim if you have had diarrhoea in the past 14 days.
  • Shower and wash thoroughly (especially your bottom) before you swim.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after going to the toilet.
  • Avoid swallowing water while swimming.
  • Inform the pool operator if you become ill after swimming in the pool.

Get more healthy swimming tips.

Be aware of air pollution

Many factors affect the quality of the air that we breathe:

  • Burning fossil fuels releases pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter into the air.
  • The interaction of air pollution and sunlight produces ozone. While ozone in the upper atmosphere helps to protect us from UV radiation, breathing in ozone at ground level can trigger asthma attacks and breathing problems.
  • Air quality is adversely affected by bushfires, which are expected to increase in frequency and severity due to climate change.
  • Climate change is expected to increase the length of pollen seasons in some areas and may also result in increased growth and pollen production in some plant species. Pollen can cause allergic reactions such as hay fever in some individuals.

You can minimise your risk of exposure to air pollution and poor-quality air by:

  • checking the VicEmergency website or downloading the app and setting up a ‘watch zone’ to find out about any bushfires (or other extreme events) in your local area
  • checking the air quality in your area on EPA’s AirWatch website
  • during the grass pollen season (October through December), checking the pollen forecast for stations around Victoria on the Melbourne Pollen website or via the Melbourne Pollen Count mobile app.

Other suggestions for days of poor air quality include:

  • plan (or postpone) any outdoor activities accordingly
  • avoid or limit vigorous physical activity
  • if you have a pre-existing lung or heart condition (including asthma) take your medication, and follow your treatment plan.

Read more about air pollution and reducing harm from bushfire smoke.

Keep food safe

Higher temperatures increase the risk of food-borne infections such as gastroenteritis (gastro), caused by increased growth of pathogens such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E. coli.

Read more about Food safety and storage, Food safety outdoors, and Food safety for summer celebrations.

Look after your mental health

Aside from its effects on physical health, climate change may adversely affect the mental health of many Australians. Extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and bushfires can lead to psychological distress due to trauma, illness, loss of loved ones, destruction of property and displacement, and disruption of communities, goods and services.

Getting help and support for mental health issues early can make a big difference to getting the right treatment or assistance for your needs.

Actions to reduce your contribution to climate change

Climate change and health (1)

Individual action can make a difference. If we each make changes, together this adds up to collective action that makes an even bigger difference.

View Climate change and health – Reducing your impact and improving your health video page for English and translated transcripts.

There are plenty of positive things you can do to help slow or reduce climate change, which will also benefit your health, including:

  • Increasing your use of ‘active transport’ (such as walking and cycling) can help to reduce your risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and musculoskeletal conditions.
  • Reducing your reliance on cars by using active transport or public transport will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality, helping to reduce rates of lung cancer and other lung conditions (including asthma), heart disease and stroke.
  • Eating a diet rich in plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains, and with fewer animal-based foods is good for your health and the environment.
  • As part of a well-balanced, regular diet and a healthy, active lifestyle, eating the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables for men and women every day can help you reduce obesity and maintain a healthy weight, lower your cholesterol and lower your blood pressure.
  • Reducing your consumption of high kilojoule processed foods will help to reduce excess energy consumption and reduce the environmental impacts associated with these foods. Processed foods are generally high in saturated fat, added sugars or salt, take more energy to produce and are usually packaged, which contributes to landfill waste.
  • Drinking tap water. Victoria has some of the world’s best drinking water. Drinking tap water over bottled water or sugary drinks is better for your health and the environment, and it’s a lot cheaper too.
  • Cooling and heating your home efficiently will help you remain comfortable all year round, and save on energy.

These benefits are not only important for the health of our communities, but also help to reduce demands on the health system.

Where to get help

  • Your GP (doctor)
  • Sustainability Victoria Tel. 1300 363 744 – for advice about energy, waste and recycling
  • Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment Tel. 1800 803 772
  • Environment Protection Authority Tel. 1300 372 842 – for air quality information or to report pollution e.g. from motor vehicles or industrial pollution (pollution hotline open 24 hours, 7 days)

Other resources

  • Smoke and your health
  • Thunderstorm asthma
  • Epidemic thunderstorm asthma
  • Asthma emergency first aid
  • Emergencies – floods
  • After a flood – returning home safely
  • Survive the heat
  • Heat stress and older people
  • How to cope and stay safe in extreme heat
  • Beaches and water quality

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