WH&Y authors: Rose Lewis
Co-author: Lisa Lewis
The information and statistics published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) are used to inform decisions about health policies and services. In June 2021 it released Australia’s Youth, a report that brings together a wide range of data on the wellbeing of young people aged 12–24. The WH&Y Commission was invited to provide input to the report, including advising on the range of topics covered, and preparing commentaries on three key topics: Climate Change, Discrimination, Belonging and Health, and The Wellbeing of LGBTIQ+ Young People.
The commentary on Climate Change published below was originally published as part of the AIHW report, Australia's Youth. It appears here with the permission of AIHW.
Climate change refers to the change of climate caused by human activity, as well as to the natural climate variability that alters the composition of the global atmosphere (UN General Assembly 1992). Young Australians consider it to be an important topic, with 30% listing ‘the environment’ as one of the top three most important issues (Tiller et al. 2020). Climate change was also one of the 2 most frequently raised youth priorities in the Commonwealth Youth Taskforce Interim Report consultations (DoH 2019:12).
Addressing climate change is integral to youth health now and in the future, yet more than 70% of young people believe their opinions on the topic are not being taken seriously (Chiw & Ling 2019).
The effects of climate change on wellbeing can be direct or indirect, immediate or delayed, and result in short- or long-term impacts on the individual (Sanson et al. 2019). To illustrate its impact on youth, some examples of the effects of extreme weather on health (direct impact) and the effects of changes to social determinants of health (indirect impact) are provided.
There is a strong link between climate change and physical health. Climate change results in more extreme weather, such as intense rainfall, cyclones, droughts and bushfires (Steffen et al. 2019). These extreme weather events can cause physical health problems in youth. Bushfires, for example, result in increased asthma flare-ups, fever, gastroenteritis, and electrolyte imbalances, due to excessive heat (Forrest & Shearman 2015). Children and teenagers are at greater risk of heat stress than adults (Hughes et al. 2016).
Climate change also impacts mental health. To cope with the 2019–20 bushfires, 5,094 patients accessed 18,945 bushfire mental health services through the Medicare Benefits Schedule between 10 January 2020 and 11 October 2020 (AIHW 2020:18). This is because direct experience with climate-related events—such as bushfires, floods and drought—can result in traumatic stress and stress-related problems—such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), grief and anxiety disorders (Fritze et al. 2008). Children are affected not only by the event itself but also by the family stress, fractured social support networks and displacement that follow such extreme weather events (Burke et al. 2018). Bushfire recovery studies show evidence of delayed and prolonged effects on mental health, as many as 5 years after the event (Hayes et al. 2018).
Climate change can also impact wellbeing through changes to social determinants of health. Certain population groups, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and low‑income families, can be particularly affected.
For many Indigenous Australians, a connection with ‘country’—defined as ‘a place of ancestry, identity, language, livelihood and community’—is a key determinant of health (Green et al. 2009). Traditional owners of the land living in more remote areas are likely to face physiological, psychological, economic and spiritual stress as extreme weather makes it difficult for them to ‘look after their country’ (Green et al. 2009). Potential repercussions of climate change could include the loss of a cultural ‘point of reference’, or unliveable conditions that lead to the displacement of Indigenous Australians (Hunter 2009).
Climate change also undermines health through its impact on food supply: the observed and projected impacts include reduced food quality and nutrition, food price rises and spikes, increasing obesity and the instability of agricultural incomes (Mbow et al. 2019). Poorer families, in particular, struggle to cope with rising food, energy and water costs as resources become scarcer (Strazdins & Skeat 2011).
The development of indicators and further research are important, particularly to understand the indirect, delayed and long-term effects of climate change and to guide future decision making. Moving forward, greater consideration must be paid to youth and Indigenous Australian perspectives.
- AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2020. Australian bushfires 2019–20: exploring the short-term health impacts. Viewed 19 February 2021.
- Burke SEL, Sanson AV & Van Hoorn J 2018. The psychological effects of climate change on children. Current Psychiatry Reports 20.
- Chiw A & Ling HS 2019. Young people of Australia and climate change: perceptions and concerns. Perth: Millennium Kids. Viewed 14 August 2020.
- DoH (Department of Health) 2019. Youth Taskforce Interim Report. Viewed 19 February 2021.
- Forrest D & Shearman D 2015. No time for games: children’s health and climate change. Adelaide: Doctors for the Environment Australia.
- Fritze JG, Blashki GA, Burke S & Wiseman J 2008. Hope, despair and transformation: climate change and the promotion of mental health and wellbeing. International Journal of Mental Health Systems 2(13). Viewed 15 August 2020.
- Green D, King U & Morrison J 2009. Disproportionate burdens: the multidimensional impacts of climate change on the health of Indigenous Australians. Medical Journal of Australia 190(1):4–5.
- Hayes K, Blashki G, Wiseman J, Burke S & Reifels L 2018. Climate change and mental health: risks, impacts and priority actions. International Journal of Mental health Systems 12(28). Viewed 20 August 2020.
- Hughes L, Hanna E & Fenwick J 2016. Climate change and health impacts of extreme heat. Australia: Climate Council. Viewed 15 August 2020.
- Mbow C, Rosenzweig C, Barioni LG, Benton TG, Herrero M, Krishnapillai M et al. 2019. Food security. In: Shukla PR, Skea J, Calvo Buendia E, Masson-Delmotte V, Pörtner H-O, Roberts DC et al. (eds). Climate change and land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. 437–550. Viewed 19 February 2021.
- Sanson AV, Van Hoorn J & Burke SEL 2019. Responding to the impacts of the climate crisis on children and youth. Child Development Perspectives 13(4):201–7.
- Steffen W, Dean A & Rice M 2019. Weather gone wild: climate change-fuelled extreme weather in 2019. Australia: Climate Council. Viewed 15 August 2020.
- Strazdins L & Skeat H 2011. Weathering the future: climate change, children and young people and decision making. Canberra: Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth.
- Tiller E, Fildes J, Hall S, Hicking V, Greenland N, Liyanarachchi D & Di Nicola K 2020. Youth Survey Report 2020, Sydney, NSW: Mission Australia.
- UN (United Nations) General Assembly 1992. United Nations framework convention on climate change. Viewed 19 February 2021.
About The Authors
Hey everyone! My name is Rose and I study Business and Law at university. I also work for Western Sy...