Integrating health into our response to climate change
Ten years after Black Saturday we are still feeling the devastating effects of Australia’s worst bushfire disaster. In addition to the 450,000 ha of land burnt and the 3,500 structures destroyed, the fires caused 180 fatalities and 414 injured, not to mention the significant impact of the disaster on the victims’ mental health.
A decade ago, health wasn’t considered in discussions about climate change. Since then, Australia has seen record floods in Queensland, severe bushfires in Tasmania and Victoria, widespread heatwaves and drought, and a water crisis along the Darling River. Equally, since then, a growing field of research and interventions have emerged driven by the discovery that climate change could have a large impact on individual health.
A study conducted by researchers from the Institute of Sustainable Futures, the Faculty of Health and the School of Architecture at the UTS, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales, highlights the opportunities for built environment interventions to address the impact of climate change on both planetary and human health.
What is the effect of climate change on health?
The health effects from climate change are significant, causing a threat to both individual and population health outcomes. Increased temperatures lead to bushfires that destroy our sources of food and drinking water and heat waves that lead to heat stroke or death. Rising sea levels cause floods that can wipe out entire populations. These are just some of the effects that climate change is already having on our health.
“Climate change is already having direct effects on health. It’s the indirect health effects of climate change that people also need to be aware of,” says Dr Erica McIntyre, an expert in health and the built environment.
In addition to the immediate trauma of catastrophic climate-driven events, individuals and communities also suffer from delayed physiological problems when people reflect on the impacts of their experience. Fears about the long-term effects of climate change on the global population can also have an overwhelming impact on mental health, increasing the risk of anxiety and depression.
What can the built environment do for our health?
Although the responsibility of climate change falls on the shoulders of everyone, individuals are limited in their capacity for change by the environment they live in. That’s why built environment professionals have the responsibility of building urban environments that address planetary needs and the needs of people.
Built environment professionals can respond to climate change in two ways: through adaptations which manage the unavoidable consequences of climate change, and through mitigations which seek to prevent further unmanageable impacts.
Some examples of built environment adaptations for human and planetary health include:
- Increased water bodies in urban spaces and adapting building codes (e.g. better insulation or increased air conditioning) to reduce heat-related mortalities and stress.
- Land and water pollution management (e.g. installation of home water filters) to reduce morbidity and mortality from contaminants caused by sea-level rises and temperature changes.
- Settlement planning that decreases social unrest and mental health issues by adapting to sea-level rises.
Mitigations take a ‘co-benefits’ approach by promoting mutually beneficial solutions for planetary and human health. Some examples include:
- Integrated transport planning such as more bicycle paths and walking tracks to encourage physical activity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Land-use zoning and urban planning to include green spaces and water bodies within cities to accelerate the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and maintain mental health.
- Urban design to promote renewable and efficient energy generation (e.g. solar power, hydropower) to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the environmental and health impacts of air pollution.
Dr Erica McIntyre says that a combination of both climate change adaption and mitigations strategies are imperative to long-term planning solutions.
“While climate change adaptions are necessary to immediate survival they are not ideal, and although mitigations are preferable for long term solutions they are not always possible.”
What more can be done?
With an increased consciousness about the ways in which the built environment shapes climate change and health comes new ethical and practical challenges. Built environment professionals need to think beyond ecological sustainability and consider the trajectory of human health, which is, the researchers say, “ultimately dependent on planetary life support process.”
Although the link between adaptation and health is more obvious, using a co-benefits approach where mitigation costs are offset through health budget savings provides built environment professionals with a powerful argument to change government policy and encourage investment in what can otherwise be perceived as expensive low-carbon living options.
As for health professionals, there is ample opportunity to collaborate on built environment projects by providing insight into the health of human populations and advising planners on how to integrate health outcomes into decision making
Through continued evidence-based research which addresses the link between health and climate change, built environment and health professionals will be able to transform existing approaches into more sustainable health-promoting solutions.
View the research article Built environment interventions for human and planetary health: integrating health in climate change adaptation and mitigation published in Public Health Research & Practice.