The climate crisis is here. But there is still time to avert disaster if we take action now
The climate crisis predicted to happen sometime in the future has arrived. The fallout is evident, with poorer health, and wellbeing outcomes and environmental changes that sustains life. Science informs us if we continue along this trajectory, the impacts will get worse. We can still mitigate climate change through sustainable practices which will reduce the burden on healthcare, and ensure a healthy planet. Nurses and midwives, can be key players in change and make a significant difference by influencing the community to a more sustainable way of living. The ANMJ wants to help all nurses and midwives achieve this goal for a sustainable future.
Global warming: Health is at risk but is healthcare contributing to the problem?
Human-induced climate change is the most significant, most pervasive threat to the natural environment and societies the world has ever experienced, according to a report to the General Assembly in October last year. “The overall effect of inadequate actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is creating a human rights catastrophe, and the costs of these climate change related disasters are enormous,” says Ian Fry, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change in the report. To date, the planet has warmed more than 1.2°C compared with pre-industrial levels, resulting in profound and rapidly worsening health effects on every continent.1
Impact on health and healthcare
Planet warming is resulting in worsening health effects, health risks and the distribution of many infectious diseases. Heatwaves, for example, resulted in at least 350 deaths alone between 2000 and 2018 in Australia. As heatwaves increase in frequency and intensity more deaths are likely, with projected trends suggesting a potential increase of 10–50 additional heatwave days by the end of this century.2 Other extremes, such as fire, flood or drought, as well as high levels of pollution, can affect food security and access to supplies, including those necessary in healthcare. Additionally, pollutants can be responsible for respiratory problems such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), asthma, bronchiolitis, lung cancer, cardiovascular events, central nervous system dysfunctions, and cutaneous diseases.1
What is global warming
The United Nations, state global warming is caused by greenhouse gas emissions blanketing Earth. The gases trap the sun’s heat and holds it in the atmosphere, creating a greenhouse effect. As the world is warming faster than at any point in recorded history, warmer temperatures are changing weather patterns and disrupting the normal balance of nature over time.
It’s widely known that electricity and heat production, agriculture, forestry, other land use, transportation and buildings are leading contributors through burning fossil fuels such as gas, petrol, oil, and coal to gases. Collectively they add an additional 9.1 billion tonnes of carbon to the air each year.3 Not so well known is that healthcare makes up 7% of Australia’s total emissions4 and globally 4.4% of emissions.5 Researchers say the most significant culprits of healthcare emissions are hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry, making up two-thirds of the carbon footprint.4 Ninety percent of the carbon footprint stems from indirect CO2 emissions due to purchases between multiple economic sectors that feed into the healthcare sector. The healthcare industry also produces millions of tonnes of waste, ending in landfills and adding to the carbon emissions in the atmosphere.3 As climate change progressively impacts the determinants of health, community and social structures, so too does the pressure on already burdened health services. As healthcare itself contributes to the collective carbon footprint, this sits at odds with the mission of healthcare professionals to increase the duration and quality of patients’ lives.4 Maiek et al.4 says for healthcare to reduce its carbon footprint there needs to be carbon efficient procedures, including greater public health measures, to lower the impact of healthcare services on the environment.
Until recently, there had been little momentum on reducing healthcare emissions despite Australia’s peak Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA) strongly advocating for government action on sustainable healthcare. Since the Albanese Government took power in 2022, there have been promising signs of a shift. According to CAHA, this includes the Government committing to Australia’s first ever national plan on climate and health and working towards sustainable healthcare with state and territory governments. Additionally, Health Minister Mark Butler confirmed climate change as a health priority for the first time in the Australian Parliament. There are also moves to address our plastic pandemic.
Can nurses and midwives influence change?
“Absolutely,” says Ros Morgan, ANMF’s (Vic Branch) Environmental Health Officer. Ros argues it’s crucial nurses and midwives work towards reducing the adverse health and environmental impact of climate change and the sustainability of the healthcare system. “Taking action will improve healthcare delivery and generate cost savings,” says Ros. Nurses and midwives represent a large proportion of the healthcare workforce and are positioned as spokespeople and advocates. “We are trusted, visible and connected with community. Nurses and midwives can be effective bearers of the ethical story and immediate context of climate change impacts.” As individuals, Ros says nurses and midwives can lead by example, reducing emissions in their personal and professional lives. “The things that we do as individuals add up and can lead to changed expectation, demand and cultural shift. Ultimately, we can be part of system change.” Ros stresses business as usual is not good enough as it gives us a trajectory well beyond what is liveable. “Direct patient care is a valued part of our role, but we also contribute to best practice, quality improvement and system performance. We are the experts in our own area. We see the waste, the loss, and the opportunities. We are integral to consultative process and in delivering improved outcomes.”