On Tuesday 14 January Melbourne’s air quality was the worst in the world, interrupting the Australian Open tennis championship.  Some players were unable to continue playing because of the smoke from the recent bushfires in South East Australia, which killed at least 28 people, an estimated 1.2 billion animals and destroyed over 2000 homes. According to NASA, the smoke from the fires has started to circumnavigate the globe, and has already reached Brazil.

On 21-24 January the World Economic Forum (WEF) meets in Davos. The Australian fires have brought the three biggest overall risks identified by the WEF to the world’s attention: extreme weather, climate policy failure and biodiversity loss.

Air pollution from the Australian bushfires constitutes a public health emergency. The Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA) and Global Health and Climate Alliance (GCHA) call on world leaders in Davos to demand the Australian government take effective action on climate change and its impacts on human health and biodiversity loss with no further delay.

CAHA and GCHA urgently call on the Australian federal and state governments to recognise the climate emergency, the link between climate change and bushfires and to develop emergency plans for responding to the predicted prolonged and more intense bushfire seasons. Emergency planning and the new Bushfire Recovery Agency should be informed by indigenous understanding of forest and land management, and include additional resources for emergency preparedness in primary and acute care.

There is incredible resilience in disaster-affected communities but long-term mental health impacts should not be ignored. Plans are also needed to support people’s long-term recovery.

The UK’s Met Office Hadley Centre has said that the Australian bushfires will become the new normal if climate change continues unabated bringing a 3 degrees temperature increase. Australia must commit to deeper targets to cut its emissions and develop a just transition to renewable energy. As WHO has indicated, Australia should integrate public health into revised national carbon budgets (Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs, under the Paris Agreement). Interventions which cut carbon emissions not only protect health from growing climate impacts but also provide immediate near-term opportunities to improve health.

Global climate change and local air quality are linked. The State capital cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide – and the Federal capital, Canberra, have all endured dangerous air quality levels due to the smoke from nearby bushfires. Air quality has exceeded “hazardous” levels by a factor of 10 on several occasions, a clear threat to public health.

According to the New South Wales state health department, the number of people across the state presenting to hospital emergency departments with respiratory problems increased by around 25% above the usual weekly average for the first week of December. Ambulance callouts were up by around 30%.

Air pollution is a particular threat for elderly and young people and for people with pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory conditions such as asthma. It is also a risk for pregnant women and has been linked with poor mental health and cognition. When air quality is poor, people are advised to stay indoors, if possible, limit aerobic exercise and wear N95 masks.

The Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians have recognised climate change as a health emergency. CAHA in consultation with other health care stakeholders has developed a Framework for a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Wellbeing. Australia needs effective leadership to tackle climate change issues urgently.

In 2019 forest fires raged around the world, in the Brasilian Amazon, Siberia, Indonesia and then Australia. Three global agencies NASA, NOAA and the UK Met Office have just confirmed that the 10 years to the end of 2019 was the warmest decade on record.

These events demonstrate the profound and deepening threats to human health and biodiversity from climate change. We call on the Australian and other national governments to commit to sincere and coordinated action to reduce emissions, including through a rapid phase out of fossil fuels, as advised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its report on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.—END—

Media contacts:

CAHA, [email protected], m. +61(0)424 885 387 (AEDT) 

GCHA, [email protected], m.+351 910 678 050 (CET)