The Australian Academy of Science has gathered 60 researchers in order to raise concerns about climate change as it relates to public health. The main purpose of the newly formed think-tank is to influence government response, but also public awareness about what increases in temperature and changes in weather patterns can mean for personal wellbeing.

The Academy divided experts — including anthropologists, engineers, public health researchers and human geographers — into five groups in order to analyse data and create a report, which it will present later this year:

  1. Temperature and extreme weather events
  2. Infectious disease
  3. Food and water supplies
  4. Livelihood and disadvantage
  5. Security, social instability and conflict

Professor Emeritus Bruce Armstrong of the University of Sydney’s school of public health is quoted by Guardian Australia:

Whatever some people might think, global warming is occurring and the climate is changing and it is easy to see how health can be impacted, but until now there has been a relatively small scientific contribution into these health impacts.

People tend to look at climate change as just temperatures getting a little hotter and that being something they can manage. They don’t seriously see the impacts that will flow from a small increase in the average temperature where the net effect will be enormous.

Flooding in Brisbane, 2011. Pic: Tatters ❀ (Flickr CC)

Despite the Australian Academy of Science’s concerns that the public health aspect of climate change has been ignored, the country was found to be unique in its contribution to research on mental health and climate change, according to a report from Grist. 27 papers and chapters have been published on the subject in the country. However, they were all traced back to the same person: Helen Berry, a psychiatric epidemiologist at the University of Canberra.

We’re not talking about the so-called anxiety of children some climate change deniers attribute to “warmist propaganda”. Berry’s research deals with legitimate mental stresses associated with real effects that can be caused or influenced by climate change, such as drought or crop failures. Berry has looked at aboriginal communities who are used to centuries of weather patterns which they now see changing. As far as children are concerned, she has found that those with weak social bonds suffer comparatively more from the effects climate-influenced disasters like floods and fires.

When you think about what climate change does, it basically increases the risk of weather-related disasters of one sort or another. What happens from a psychological point of view is people get knocked down. Whenever people are knocked down, they have to get up again and start over. And the more that happens, the more difficult it is to keep getting up.

—Helen Berry, psychiatric epidemiologist, University of Canberra.

Berry’s mentor is one Tony McMichael, formerly of the Australian National University (now retired). McMichael is thought of as “the father of climate change and health research” so it seems that Australia is a leader in the field.

Drought in East Kilmore, Victoria, 2009. Pic: beleobus (Flickr CC)

On a global level, the issue of climate change and public health will be dealt with at a World Health Organization conference in Geneva, Switzerland next month. Titled the Conference on Health and Climate, the WHO states the goals of the meeting as empowering the health and sustainable development communities to:

  • Enhance resilience and protect health from climate change.
  • Identify the health benefits associated with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other climate pollutants.
  • Support health-promoting climate change policies.

One major concern about climate change and health as regards to public policy is whether the policy makers will listen. So far they haven’t done much on climate change — as recommended by scientists — full stop.