“We don’t get into the technical stuff…We’re talking about the health impact of what we’re seeing with our patients. It’s about real people,” (Domrose, 2015). This is how a nurse and midwife in the United States described her approach to ensuring her message on the effects of how climate change would be heard and understood by politicians.
There is a huge amount of technical literature written about factors which are adversely affecting our environment. You’ve no doubt seen terms splashed across print and televised media such as: ‘carbon emissions intensity percentages’, ‘fracking-related air and water pollution levels’, ‘greenhouse gas inventories’, ‘total anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions tonnage’, ‘degrees of global warming’. Data on this ‘technical stuff’ is important in mounting arguments to governments that action must be taken to reverse the adverse effects of climate change. This data has added to the abundant evidence which now clearly demonstrates the fact that climate change is a major threat to public health, on a global scale.
While nurses and midwives don’t necessarily need to be conversant with the technical details alluded to above, we do have, as highlighted by the International Council of Nurses (ICN), a “shared responsibility to sustain and protect the natural environment from depletion, pollution, degradation and destruction,” (International Council of Nurses, 2008). This is primarily because of the health consequences of changes in our natural environment. As frontline health professionals, nurses and midwives see the impact of climate, and climate change, on the health of individuals and communities for whom they provide care. They see the direct effects from storms, drought, flood and heatwaves. We experience the indirect effects from altered water quality, air pollution, land use change and ecological change; and, we anguish over the senseless effects such as mental illness, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, infectious disease epidemics, injuries and poisoning (The Lancet Commissions, 2015).
Adverse health effects on individuals and communities will obviously impact health systems and healthcare delivery, with the treatment of climate change-related health conditions adding to the burden of an already stretched healthcare workforce (Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation, 2015).
According to the ICN, of particular concern is the impact of climatic change on people living in poverty. They are “more dependent on natural resources, more vulnerable to infectious diseases and more prone to suffer the impact of disasters such as flood, drought, fires, and storms.” In Australia, these more vulnerable groups are particularly in rural and remote areas, such as isolated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
In its position statement, the ICN calls on national nursing organisations to be active in taking measures to develop plans and policies to mitigate the impacts of climate change on health, including lobbying governments to act at the national level and also globally. The ANMF does this in a number of ways through our state and territory Branches – for example, disseminating information to members in professional education forums where members share how they use their workplace sphere of influence to promote environmentally sustainable strategies; and, at the national level through membership of the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA).
As a member of CAHA, the ANMF is able to join in an alliance of stakeholders in the health sector who “wish to see the threat of climate change addressed through prompt policy action,” (Climate and Health Alliance). A benefit of Alliance membership is the ANMF can rely on CAHA to research and interpret the “technical stuff” of climate change, and we can collectively bring the important health voice to climate change debates and policy development.
CAHA representatives were present at the Paris climate conference (COP21) in December 2015, where 195 countries adopted the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate agreement. This historic agreement sets out a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming. The Paris agreement is due to enter into force in 2020.
The health sector should play a key role in promoting public environmental health. A global campaign launched in 2015 in the lead up to the Paris conference - the 2020 Health Care Climate Challenge, aims to mobilise hospitals and health centres around the world to commit to 2020 emissions reduction targets. Visit: https://noharm-global.org/ issues/global/2020-health-care-climate-challenge to see how you can participate.
‘Technical stuff’ is important, but we need nurses and midwives to highlight the human health impacts of climate change. That’s where we’re the experts.
Julianne Bryce, Elizabeth Foley and Julie Reeves
Federal Professional Officers