The growing impact of climate change

Australians are already experiencing the impacts of climate change. Along with more extreme weather events, the number of heatwave days in Australia is also increasing. This increase in extreme weather events and extreme heat events brings more heat-associated morbidity and mortality. The World Health Organisation predicts that between 2030 and 2050, there will be an additional 250 000 deaths each year due to climate change. In Australia, more people currently die because of heat-related events than any other natural disasters. Increasingly severe and frequent floods, storms and changing patterns of infectious disease will also have a growing toll.

How does climate change impact health?

A recent editorial from a leading publication in our field, the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, has called for awareness and action from its readership.  The authors remind us of the catastrophic effects that lay ahead if the predicted increase in global temperatures is not stopped.  The editors, led by Professor Paul Stewart from the University of Leeds, identified two key areas that climate change will impact endocrinology.

Firstly, and easiest to see around us, are the increase in extreme weather events. For example, the flooding in northern New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland earlier this year.  In February and March, flooding events in Lismore and its surrounding areas resulted in more than 10 000 people becoming homeless.  While the immediate impact received a lot of attention from the media, the clean-up and rebuilding are continuing, and people are still significantly impacted.

Secondly, are the changes that are happening in our ecosystems, which can be more difficult to notice.  These changes include impacts on water supplies and changes in our food supply.  Importantly, because the impact of extreme events is not evenly distributed in our communities, impacts are not felt evenly across the World with some communities being more impacted than others.

Read the article in full here.

How do changes in our environment impact the endocrine system

A heating and increasingly unstable climate can impact our bodies in many ways. More heatwave days and extreme weather events are associated with direct impacts in heart and lung health. Growing evidence suggests endocrine health is also impacted.

For example, factors such as increased bush fire activity, increased diesel exhaust exposure and other sources of pollution results in the release of particulate matter (PM).  PM can be categorised based on particle size and those with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less are referred to as PM2.5. This fine particle pollution is linked to a variety of lung and heart health problems. However, evidence shows that exposure to PM2.5 is linked with the incidence and prevalence of type 2 diabetes.  This means that with the increasing impact of climate change there is likely to be an increase in the health impact of type 2 diabetes. An increasing burden of chronic disease then impacts on our health systems and carers in the community. Read more about the research that summarised this evidence here.

Climate change is also impacting our environment and ecosystems by altering our food and water supplies.  We have experienced increased prices and supply issues recently, some of which can be attributed to the extreme weather events.   This could be through crop destruction from flooding or drought, or loss of stock due to lack of food and nutrition.

Reduced affordability and access to healthy food can result in increasing food poverty.  When healthy food becomes more expensive, the reliance on cheaper but lower quality high-fat and high-sugar content foods can increase. These lower cost and lower quality foods also contain many additives.   Increased consumption of high-fat and high -sugar containing more affordable foods are linked with increasing rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes.  The 2021 Foodbank hunger report provides some alarming statistics about food security in Australia suggesting that 1 in 6 adults haven’t had enough to eat in the last year. A statistic likely to increase as climate change impacts continue to be felt across the World.

Taking action

In Australia, doctors recognise the link between a healthy planet and healthy people.  Organisations such as Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) and Healthy Futures are involved in public education and advocacy. Leading medical colleges have also joined the to call for climate action to benefit health. ESA members are also getting involved. Perth endocrinologist and DEA member Dr Vinthua Shetty participated in DEA’s campaign in the lead up to the 2022 election.  Melbourne endocrinologist Dr Annabelle Warren lent her voice to the Fossil Ad Ban campaign to stop promotion of high-emissions companies.  The ESA was one of 26 health organisations to sign an open letter to energy company AGL to advocate for early coal closure to reduce emissions for health.

Endocrinologists and community members can get involved with these groups and campaigns. This could include advocating for policy change from governments and companies.  We can all take steps to reduce carbon emissions in our own lives. Actions like phasing out gas in the home, investing in renewable electricity and solar panels, transitioning to electric vehicles or active and public transport will help. We can also reduce air travel as well as reducing red meat consumption. Moving superannuation and investments into ‘sustainable’ options and funds is an impactful way to contribute to supporting decarbonisation.

We are making more progress than ever in reducing emissions. Ongoing efforts can help avoid the worst effects of climate change on general, and endocrine, health.