A Climate of Suffering: The Real Costs of Living with Inaction on Climate Change Spotlight Report

Aug 26, 2011 - 4:16pm

Climate change is here, now. While it is often difficult to draw a clear line between a particular weather event and long-term climate change, there is a strong relationship between the emerging global pattern of disasters and global warming—whether long and insidious, like drought, or short and violent, like bush fires.*

Scientists warn that a failure to reverse rising carbon pollution levels will see Australia’s inherently moody climate become even more volatile. With inaction or delay on pollution comes a sharp rise in the frequency, intensity and extent of heatwaves, bushfires and drought, as well as more torrential downpours, and tropical storms with increasing ferocity.**

The damage caused by a changing climate is not just physical. Recent experience shows extreme weather events also pose a serious risk to public health, including mental health and community wellbeing, with serious flow-on consequences for the economy and wider society.***

This paper’s purpose is to raise awareness of the mental health consequences of extreme weather events and climate change. By reviewing the evidence and expert opinion, it is hoped that governments, businesses and communities will be prompted to act early, to avoid further unnecessary suffering and cost.

As recent disasters like Cyclone Yasi and the Eastern Australian floods have shown, many people prove remarkably resilient in the face of a disaster. But people’s responses to disaster are complex. With the right support, many communities can pull together and pull through, and Australians rightly celebrate this apparent strength. However, for many, the dislocation and suffering caused by extreme events can linger for years, long into the ‘recovery’.

Just how much Australians’ mental health burden grows in the future depends significantly on how quickly and substantially we act on climate change now. Seeing action on climate change as an investment in preventative health care is an important first step. After all, prevention is always better—not to mention cheaper—than treatment.

The global climate is changing. Sadly, some further suffering is now unavoidable and a complementary focus on adaptation is essential. However, governments can choose to substantially minimise the suffering, and the social and economic costs by acting early to cut pollution and switch our economy to clean energy and production. By making a genuine effort at home, Australia will be much better placed to work with the rest of the world to avoid the worst scenarios painted by climate science.

The task is two-fold: we must manage the unavoidable changes already in the pipeline and, at the same time, avoid the unmanageable human tragedy of climate change unchecked.

Ian Hickie, Executive Director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney, published an opinion piece following the report's launch entitled Act Now on Climate Change to Protect Australians' Mental Health.

National Climate Data Center, ‘Top 10 Global Weather/Climate Events of 2010’, [web page] (2011), <http:www.ncdc.noaa.gov/special-reports/global-top-ten-2010.html>, accessed 3 February 2011.

** Climate Change in Australia [web document] <http://www.climatechangeinaustralia.gov.au/index.php>, accessed 20 May 2011.

*** R. Woodruff et al., Climate Change Health Impacts in Australia, Report for the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Medical Association, [web document] (2010) <http://www.acfonline.org.au/uploads/res_AMA_ACF_Full_Report.pdf>, accessed 20 May 2011.

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