A healthy environment is essential for clean air, safe drinking water, food and secure shelter. But our environment, and the ability to provide these vital elements, is dependent on planetary health, and the ways in which we, as a society, respond to the challenges of a changing climate. 


The World Health Organisation has named climate change the biggest threat to our health in the 21st century. The Australian Government too, has recognised this connection between human and planetary health, and has set out to develop a National Health and Climate Strategy to combat climate change’s impact on the health of people living in Australia. Women’s Health Goulburn North East recently submitted its thoughts and concerns on the issue to the Federal Government as part of the strategy’s consultation phase.  


Our submission is shaped, firstly, by our commitment to gender and climate justice, which is an imperative of our intersectional approach to equity. Gender and climate justice, in this instance, are intimately connected to intersectionality, in that they involve bringing about a culture and a community that “centre the diverse needs, experiences and leadership of people most impacted by discrimination and oppression.”  


While we acknowledge that the intricate relationship between climate change and health has been extensively documented, primarily focusing on the direct physical impacts, we also recognise the need for a more comprehensive understanding of this connection through a broader social lens. We highlight the importance of considering the ‘social determinants of health’ approach, which recognises that health outcomes are influenced by a complex interplay of social, economic, and environmental factors that collectively shape our access to resources, opportunities, and overall wellbeing.  


Several key determinants, and their resulting impact from climate change, include: 


  • Income and Social Protection: Socioeconomic status plays a critical role in determining access to healthcare, nutrition and living conditions. Climate change can exacerbate economic disparities, leading to increased vulnerability among marginalised communities. 
  • Education: Quality education is vital for understanding health risks and adopting preventive measures. Climate-related disruptions, such as extreme weather events, can disrupt educational systems and limit knowledge dissemination. 
  • Unemployment and Job Insecurity: Climate change can lead to economic instability, particularly in industries affected by environmental shifts. Job losses and insecurity can contribute to stress and reduced access to healthcare. 
  • Working Life Conditions: Extreme weather events and changing climates can impact working conditions, especially for outdoor labour. Unsafe working environments can compromise physical and mental health. 
  • Food Insecurity: Climate-related challenges like droughts and crop failures can lead to food scarcity, affecting nutrition and overall health, particularly in vulnerable populations. 
  • Housing, Basic Amenities and the Environment: The quality of housing and access to basic amenities are crucial for health and wellbeing. Rising sea levels, increased frequency of natural disasters and changing environments can lead to inadequate housing and infrastructure. 
  • Early Childhood Development: Climate-related stressors during early childhood can have long-lasting effects on physical and cognitive development. 
  • Social Inclusion and Non-Discrimination: Vulnerable populations, such as refugees and indigenous communities, often face discrimination and exclusion, which can be exacerbated by climate-induced displacement. 
  • Structural Conflict: Climate change can intensify competition for resources, leading to social unrest and conflict, further impacting health and wellbeing. 
  • Access to Affordable Health Services of Decent Quality: Disruptions caused by climate-related events can strain healthcare systems, making it harder for individuals to access quality medical care. 


As part of our submission, we also propose the addition of ‘planetary health’ as a determinant of human health, and that any national strategy designed to not only mitigate the worst health impacts of climate change, but also cultivate a culture and society that enjoys optimal health and wellbeing against the backdrop of climate safety, can only do so by nurturing human respect and wise stewardship of flourishing and valued natural systems.  


Further, we raised additional concerns about the strategy’s lack of a clearly defined vision to underpin its objectives and principles. The absence of such a vision poses a potential challenge in effectively directing actions towards measurable outcomes. While the strategy’s primary focus is on safeguarding the health of Australians from the repercussions of climate change, we recommend a re-evaluation of its overarching purpose to align more closely with the “health in all policies” (HiAP) approach, consistent with the previously discussed perspective of social determinants of health. 


In light of these considerations, we present the following proposed revisions: 


  • Strategy vision: A climate safe community and net zero health system in which inter- generational health equity and planetary health are prioritised.  
  • Strategy purpose: To support the development and coordination of cross-department and sector initiatives that ambitiously mitigate the health and health equity impacts of climate change and guide efforts to reduce the sector’s contribution to climate change.  
  • Strategy Objective 1: Promote and protect health and wellbeing, and health equity – This strategy will guide the design and implementation of policy across all levels and departments of government, to protect and champion health equity in the context of climate change mitigation and adaptation.  
  • Strategy Objective 2: A climate-safe community – This strategy will guide initiatives to build the resilience of the community, the health system and other government sectors to respond to the health impacts of climate change.  
  • Strategy Objective 3: A net zero health and aged care system – This strategy will support the development of a comprehensive national net zero plan for health and aged care, which reflects best scientific evidence and is informed by a detailed assessment of the health system’s carbon footprint.  


To delve further into our recommendations for the National Health and Climate strategy, read our submission paper here.