Health effects

Health effects

Global perspectives

The report by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that climate change has already led to:
  • increased levels of disease
  • the geographical movement of certain infectious diseases, and
  • increased heat related deaths.

If current climate trends are sustained the IPCC has predicted a range of environmental consequences such as heatwaves and natural disasters that have health consequences such as increasing malnutrition, airborne disease, diarrheal disease, dengue fever and cardio-respiratory disease.

While there could be a reduction of malaria prevalence in some areas, it is likely to expand in others. Malaria is already responsible for an estimated 25 per cent of deaths in children aged 0–4 years. Some international studies suggest that low income and disadvantaged sections of the population may face a heightened chance of contracting tropical diseases if they live in risk areas. Such groups may already lack ready access to quality medical care. For example, the connection between poverty and a heightened increased risk of contracting malaria was highlighted by the research of Jeffrey Sachs and Pia Malaney in their 2002 study that correlated a connection between poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and increased rates of malaria. The GDP in malaria infected countries (0.4 per cent) is lower than those that are unaffected (2.3 per cent).

The World Health Organization Europe's Protecting health in Europe from climate change suggests strategies for reducing health risks in the face of climate change. Approaches include strengthening health-system intelligence, health security and health force numbers. Methods for reducing health inequalities and coping with climate change health stresses such as temperature extremes, increased infectious disease risks and injuries arising from climate-driven disasters are listed.


Health risks from climate change may arise from social, demographic and economic disruptions. Donna Green from CSIRO has categorised these as direct impacts (such as heatwaves, floods and fires) and indirect impacts arising from:

  • changes to physical systems, for example air pollution
  • biological changes such as changes in mosquito biology, photosynthesis and crop yields, and
  • changes to ecosystems such as the impact on marine fisheries production or the constraints on mosquito geographic range.

In Australia it is predicted that climate change may heighten the risks of contracting dengue fever, malaria, Ross River fever and Murray Valley encephalitis. Such mosquito borne diseases are strongly influenced by variations in climatic conditions. There is also concern that climatic changes may mean that various areas of Australia not previously considered at risk may face mosquito-spread infection. McMichael and Woodruff and colleagues have modelled the expansion of dengue fever using two scenarios (medium and high greenhouse emissions) to demonstrate the potential spread by 2050. With high emissions they estimated the dengue infection zone could reach down to Maryborough and Gympie in the east and Carnarvon in the west. 

While climate change may increase instances of malaria infection, the health risks of dengue fever for Australia are also considered serious. Fast acting treatments for reducing the spread of malaria are generally effective, but treatments to reduce the much longer period of dengue infection are not readily available. The dengue mosquito breeds more easily in an urban environment and is active for longer periods.

In the recent publication The Sting of Climate Change the Lowy Institute warns that global climate change will ‘intensify already significant malaria and dengue problems’ in our region, making northern Australia more vulnerable to malaria and dengue outbreaks. To combat this, the report recommends various strategies; including strengthening regional efforts to quantify the effects of climate change, enhancing regional education and training programs and re-evaluating Australia’s quarantine procedures. It also recommends that the Northern Territory policy of screening immigrants from malaria infested areas should be extended to Queensland and Western Australia.

A report by Horton and McMichael titled Climate change health check 2020 prepared for The Climate Institute by Doctors for the Environment Australia and endorsed by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, summarises the latest research on the health risks of climate change and effective responses to 2020 and beyond.  Health impacts emphasised in the report include increased incidence of heat stress and heat-related illnesses; allergic diseases, food poisoning and mosquito-transmitted diseases; increased trauma from drought and natural disasters; and increased demand for aid from neighbouring countries affected by climate change. Food insecurity might arise because of the disruption or reduction of agricultural production. Where coastal communities experience disturbed ecosystems due to sea level rises there may be diminished availability of sea foods.

Research Australia's Healthy Planet, Places and People highlights current Australian research to reduce some of these health effects namely, climate change and asthma, climate change and water-borne illness, climate change and food production, an alert system for heat extremes, research into mosquito-borne diseases including malaria, Dengue fever, Ross River virus, mental health needs of rural communities and better healthy urban living. It also proposes future research directions.

As evidence of the growing interest in the health impacts of climate change, the most recent overview of Australia's health produced by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australia's health 2010, includes a section that addresses the health effects of climate change.

Mental illness

The psychological impact of climate induced change on communities with a strong spiritual and economic attachment to land may be significant. For example, indigenous communities may experience anxiety as traditional lands begin to disappear, and rural communities may face ruin due to climate change. The traditional connection Australian Aborigines have with their tribal lands will only heighten the mental anxiety caused by climate change. According to the CSIRO's Dr. Donna Green many indigenous people have a 'heightened sensitivity' to changes in their environment due to the close cultural connections that exist between their country and their physical and mental wellbeing, so the impact of environmental changes due to climate change have the potential to be significant.

While many studies focus on climate change and what it could mean for levels of agricultural production, the Australian rural community may also face significant mental health issues. Natural disasters, drought and associated consequences are one of the greatest causes of anxiety and depression amongst the agricultural community. This is due to the severe threat these events pose to rural livelihoods. According to researchers Morrisey and Reser from Griffith University:
If an individual is generally prone to anxiety, or had a prior traumatic experience of a disaster situation, it is probable that in a future disaster situation this anticipatory anxiety or dread will erode both psychological and practical preparedness.

Source; S. Morrissey and J. Reser, 'Natural disasters, climate change and mental health considerations for rural Australia', Australian Journal of Rural Health, v. 15, no. 2, 2007, p. 122.

It is likely that climate change will exacerbate the effects of drought, increase the ferocity of seasonal bushfires, diminish the available water supplies, disrupt typical rainfall patterns and generally increase the already difficult task of being successful at farming (either crops or cattle). Mental health services in rural areas are likely to become an increasingly important community service as climate change brings 'far more serious and long-term' agricultural consequences.

Further reading:

The Climate Institute, A Climate of Suffering: the real cost of living with inaction on climate change, Melbourne & Sydney, The Climate Institute, 2011

J. Sachs and P. Malaney, 'The economic and social burden of malaria', Nature, v. 415, February 2002, pp.680–5.

D. Green, Climate change and health—impacts on remote Indigenous communities in northern Australia, CSIRO, 2006.

A. McMichael, R. Woodruff et al., Human health and climate change in Oceania—a risk assessment, Department of Health and Ageing, Canberra, 2002.

G. Horton and T. McMichael, Climate change health check 2020, Canberra, Climate Institute of Australia, 2008.

Healthy planet, places and people, Research Australia, 2007.

Protecting health in Europe from climate change, Copenhagen, Denmark, WHO Regional Office for Europe, 2008.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australia's health 2010, AIHW, Canberra, 2010.

S. Morrissey and J. Reser, 'Natural disasters, climate change and mental health considerations for rural Australia', Australian Journal of Rural Health, v. 15, no. 2, 2007, pp. 120–5.

J. A. Patz et al., 'Climate change and global health—quantifying a growing ethical crisis', EcoHealth, 4, 2007, pp. 397–405.

A Costello et al., Managing the health effects of climate change. Lancet 373(9676): 1693-733, 2009,


15 November, 2010 Comments to:
Last reviewed 15 November, 2010 by the Parliamentary Library Web Manager
Commonwealth of Australia
Parliament of Australia Web Site Privacy Statement
Images courtesy of AUSPIC

Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Add | Email Print
Back to top