Climate change has become an “irreversible” health crisis in Australia with dire consequences for the Asia-Pacific nation, including an increase in potentially lethal mosquito-borne tropical diseases like malaria and dengue fever, Australian doctors say.

The bleak assessment by the Australian Medical Association brings it into line with overseas counterparts, including the British Medical Association and American Medical Association, which both recognized climate change as a major health issue earlier this year.

The evidence is “clear cut” that climate change led to a health crisis because of the more extreme weather and higher rates of infectious diseases, Chris Moy, president of the Australian doctors group, told Karma. 

Moy highlighted rising sea and air temperatures resulting in more heat wave-related deaths, higher rates of water and food-borne gastroenteritis, and an increase in diseases carried by mosquitoes, like malaria and dengue fever, especially in the country’s tropical north.

According to the AMA, the ability of dengue fever-carrying mosquitos to transmit the potentially fatal disease to humans jumped almost 15% in Australia between 1950 and 2016, which the doctors group attributes to climate change.

Higher Rates of Depression

Australia’s population of 24 million is feeling the health impact indirectly, Moy said. He pointed to more weather events like droughts and bushfires contributing to higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among farmers in badly parched parts of Australia.

“These things appear to be very clearcut and they are going to be ingrained because of the irreversible nature, potentially, of increasing temperatures,” he said.

The Australian group’s stance also aligns with the longstanding view of the World Health Organisation, which has argued since 2015 that climate change is the biggest threat to global health this century. 

Cordia Chu, director of the Centre for Environment and Population Health at Griffith University in the state of Queensland, was even more downbeat. She said several health effects of climate change are still emerging.

She noted, for instance, that climate change’s role in the transmission of viruses, bacteria and parasitic worms between animals and humans in Australia was being probed.

Earlier this year, Australian research found that climate change could affect occurrences of animal-to-human diseases like Asian bird flu and rabies — known as zoonotic diseases — but concluded that more conclusive work needed to be done.

“In these cases, we’re still examining the causes and so you could say that here we’re looking at a brand-new future,” Chu told Karma. “The health emergency is not just about tomorrow it’s about the whole ecosystem changing and we only have about 20 to 30 years to turn it around.”

Warmer Australia

Weather and climate nationwide is changing due to global warming, according to the CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency. Its research shows Australia has warmed by about 1°C since 1910, with the top five warmest years on record all being in the last decade.

The agency also highlights more days of record-breaking heat, an increase in the number of tropical cyclones and a decline in rainfall as all consequences of Australia’s warming climate.

For Peter Holt, of Australian energy consultant Energetics, further warming is “locked in” for the next 20 years. Australians, especially those outside big cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, should expect more extreme weather and adverse health consequences, he said.

“People need to realize that over this closer time period we will be impacted by decreasing rainfall and increasing temperatures which will have numerous impacts, particularly declining productivity and profitability of agriculture across Australia, while infrastructure will be more affected by floods and storm damage,” Holt told Karma.