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Climate change and injury

Global warming is one of the main manifestations of climate change. Since the mid-twentieth century increasing average air temperatures have occurred near the surface of the Earth.1

In Western Australia it is expected that the frequency, intensity, duration and extent of heatwaves will continue to increase.2 This burden is in addition to our rising sea levels, which have been rising at more than twice the global average.3

What is the impact of climate change?

Climate change can result in many extreme weather events, including; heatwaves, droughts, bushfires, heavy rainfall, cyclones and floods.4 In isolation these events can have significant impacts on the WA community, however, these events can also occur simultaneously, increasing the risk of injury and hospitalisation.

Western Australia has diverse environments across the state. Given this diversity, it is anticipated that the Western Australian community will experience various climate-related disasters in the future. For example, the steadily increasing average temperatures in WA may result in parts of the Kimberley being unhabitable, and rising sea temperatures will affect the marine ecosystems along the WA coast. Furthermore, decreases in average rainfall already significantly affect agricultural productivity and water supply in the Great Southern and Wheatbelt towns, and the intensity of bushfires recently could result in future danger in the Goldfields and other parts of WA.1

Exposure to extreme heat can result in a range of heat-related illnesses or death. More people have died because of extreme heat events in Australia than from all other naturally occurring hazards combined (including floods, tropical cyclones and bushfires), and it is expected that climate change will lead to a doubling of heat-related deaths over the next 40 years.1 A recent study of the National Coronial Information System identified that from 2001-2018 38 individuals died while exercising in conditions that had heat as a causal or contributing factor, of which WA recorded the most fatalities (n=7).28

As outlined in the WA Climate Health Inquiry, climate change can affect human health in a number of ways1, including widespread financial, social and health impacts. Additionally, Australian government strategies and approaches acknowledge the effect of climate change on human health, including the National Preventive Health Strategy 2021-2030 and National Obestity Prevention Strategy 2022-32.

How does climate change affect the incidence of injury?

Evidence regarding the impact of climate change on injury susceptibility is complex and evolving. Anticipated injury burden due to climate change includes;5

  • Increased risk of drownings in floods and strong surf,
  • Obtaining burns and asphyxiation in bushfires, and
  • Experiencing poor mental health due to the impact of drought on individuals living in rural and remote areas.

Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found that in Western Australia between 2019-20 and 2021-22, there were 338 hospitalisations from injuries directly related to extreme heat (n=267), cold (n=21), bushfire (n=42) and rain and storms (n=8).30

Determinants of health such as remoteness and socio-economic status can impact weather-related injury and hospitalisations. Individuals residing in regional WA and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in particular are extremely connected and reliant on the land and climate, therefore they are potentially at heightened risk of climate-related consequences.28

Evidence also indicates that culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) communities can be more vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat due to language barriers, an increased likelihood of residing in poor quality housing and other cultural factors.29

When looking at the distribution of injuries by sex and age in Australia, males accounted for 67% of extreme weather-related injury hospitalisations between 2019-20 and 2021-22. 30 This is higher than the proportion of males in all injury hospitalisations (54%). Older adults aged 65 years or older had the highest number and proportion of cases hospitalised with extreme weather-related injuries (35.4%). 30

The impact of climate change should be considered in injury prevention planning.5 Additionally, secondary prevention activities such as improving housing standards and strengthening community warning systems should be conducted to reduce the impact of extreme weather events if/when they do occur.

Evidence supports that climate change has a multi-faceted impact on mental health.6,7

Experiencing a natural disaster or extreme weather event can lead to short and long-term psychological distress, which can result in or exacerbate psychological disorders.8,9 These may include posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, sleep disturbances, generalised anxiety and substance use disorder.9

The mental health impacts of climate change are not all felt equal. Research indicates that some members of the community have an increased likelihood of experiencing a mental health issue after a natural disaster, including younger people, individuals with a lower socioeconomic status, ethnic minority groups, individuals with pre-existing mental illness, and individuals with a lack of social support.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a strong connection to Country, and therefore are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, which can increase the likelihood of poor mental health and other social issues.10

Climate change can have a heightened impact on the mental health of WA farmers and communities. Rural communities are increasingly vulnerable to environmental degradation, drought and weather disasters, which can significantly impact agricultural productivity and cause financial difficulties for farmers.1 Research indicates that drought increases a farmer's relative risk of suicide.11

Whilst experiencing an extreme weather event can influence an individual’s mental health, climate change can also indirectly affect an individual’s mental health due to growing concern about the future.

Increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns can influence behaviour around aquatic locations and increase drowning risk, particularly among already vulnerable communities.12

In warmer weather people seek our waterways for heat relief and spend longer in the water.12 Additionally, Australians consume more alcohol on hotter days13, which when combined with waterways can increase their risk of drowning.

Floods and the rapid increase in water levels can have very dangerous implications compared to slow onset events due to the typical short timeframe available for warning, informing and action.14 The World Health Organization estimated that 75% of deaths in flood disasters is due to flooding.15

In Australia from 1 July 2021 to 30 June 2022, 13% of all drowning deaths were flood-related (n=43).16

Bushfires are one of the most common natural hazards occurring in Australia. These fires can result in serious burns and scalds, as well as cause large-scale environmental damage. In WA, between 2019-20 and 2021-22, there were 42 hospitalisations due to bushfires.30

Warmer and drier conditions, reduced rainfall, the presence of potential fuel and increased drought conditions have led to an increase in the risk of a bushfire occurring.1,17 Without comprehensive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is expected that extreme fire weather will become more frequent and severe.18

Longer fire seasons also results in less time for hazard reduction and prevention activities, again increasing the likelihood of additional bushfires.18 

 

An increase in the occurrence and escalation of interpersonal and intimate partner violence can occur following natural disasters due to trauma, reduced access to resources and forced relocation.9,19

An analysis of incidence data and temperature patterns indicated that climate change, particularly increases in temperature and extreme levels of precipitation, can be associated with increased levels of violence.20 Physiological explanations for the association between hot temperatures and violence reference the fact that hot temperatures activate the part of the brain that is responsible for both thermoregulation and emotion regulation and that adrenaline production increases in the heat which could increase aggressive behaviour.21

Evidence suggests that high levels of social cohesion in a community before a natural disaster may help to minimise the severity of post-disaster consequences such as violence and PTSD.20

Low-pressure systems and troughs, duration of damp pavement conditions, unseasonal events, reduced visibility, impaired vehicle braking and periods of extreme heat and cold, have all been identified as factors contributing to road crashes.22 Climate change, particularly heavy rainfall and fires, can also cause long-term damage to transport infrastructure, which then contributes to unsafe road usage.23

In relation to driver behaviour, higher temperatures have been associated with reduced alertness, slower coordination and an increased reaction time.22

The weather can also affect human and economic activity, resulting in changes to road usage (i.e. agricultural activity, building activity, leisure and travel modes) and therefore affect the likelihood of road traffic incidents.22

Moving forward our transportation systems will need to place greater priority on planning for how climate change and extreme weather events impact on the road network.24 When designing and deciding on the location of roads, now more than ever, we need to consider flood heights, frequencies of flooding and the influence of rising sea levels.25 Not only is public transport the most energy-efficient form of transportation and therefore reduces transport's contribution to climate change, it is also the safest form of transportation.26

Key resources

Key organisations

References

1.         Weeramanthri, T., Joyce, S., Bowman, F., Bangor-Jones, R. & Law, C. Climate Health WA Inquiry: Final Report. https://ww2.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/Corp/Documents/Improving-health/Climate-health/Climate-Health-WA-Inquiry-Final-Report.pdf (2020).

2.         Steffen, W., Hughes, L. & Perkins, S. Heatwaves: hotter, longer, more often. https://ww2.health.wa.gov.au/~/media/Corp/Documents/Improving-health/Climate-health/Climate-Health-WA-Inquiry-Final-Report.pdf#page=11 (2014).

3.         Steffen, W. & Hughes, L. The critical decade: Western Australian climate change impacts. (2013).

4.         CSIRO Bureau of Meteorology, Commonwealth of Australia. Climate change in Australia. https://www.climatechangeinaustralia.gov.au/en/ (2015).

5.         Hunter, K. et al. National Injury Prevention Strategy - Literature Review. https://cdn.georgeinstitute.org/cdn/ff/wXk1iCd1Z97R4LA6lR1KtGy_yLjgTSo1OHhiZLP7jw8/1576219626/public/2019-12/National%20Injury%20Prevention%20Strategy_Literature%20review_FINAL.pdf (2019).

6.         Lawrance, E., Thompson, R., Fontana, G. & Jennings, N. The impact of climate change on mental health and emotional wellbeing: current evidence and implications for policy and practice. (2021).

7.         Climate Council of Australia. Summary of results from National Study of the Impact of Climate-Fuelled Disasters on the mental health of Australians. https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/Mental-health-survey-results_IL_230112_V13.pdf (2023).

8.         Fergusson, D. M., Horwood, L. J., Boden, J. M. & Mulder, R. T. Impact of a Major Disaster on the Mental Health of a Well-Studied Cohort. JAMA Psychiatry 71, 1025–1031 (2014).

9.         Saeed, S. A. & Gargano, S. P. Natural disasters and mental health. Int. Rev. Psychiatry 34, 16–25 (2022).

10.       Bowles, D. Climate Change and Health Adaptation: Consequences for Indigenous Physical and Mental Health. Ann. Glob. Health 81, 427–431 (2015).

11.       Hanigan, I. C., Butler, C. D., Kokic, P. N. & Hutchinson, M. F. Suicide and drought in New South Wales, Australia, 1970–2007. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 109, 13950–13955 (2012).

12.       Sindall, R. et al. Drowning risk and climate change: a state-of-the-art review. Inj. Prev. 28, 185–191 (2022).

13.       Peden, A. E., Franklin, R. C. & Leggat, P. A. Breathalysing and surveying river users in Australia to understand alcohol consumption and attitudes toward drowning risk. BMC Public Health 18, 1393 (2018).

14.       Hydrometeorological extreme events and public health. (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2022).

15.       World Health Organization. Drowning. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/drowning.

16.       Royal Life Saving Society – Australia. Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report 2022. https://www.royallifesaving.com.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/67687/RLS_NationalDrowningReport2022_SPG_LR.pdf (2022).

17.       USGCRP. Climate Science Special Report. 1–470 https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/8/ (2017).

18.       Climate Council of Australia. ‘This is Not Normal’: Climate change and escalating bushfire risk. Briefing Paper. (2019).

19.       Brzoska, M. Weather Extremes, Disasters, and Collective Violence: Conditions, Mechanisms, and Disaster-Related Policies in Recent Research. Curr. Clim. Change Rep. 4, 320–329 (2018).

20.       Levy, B. S., Sidel, V. W. & Patz, J. A. Climate Change and Collective Violence. Annu. Rev. Public Health 38, 241–257 (2017).

21.       Miles-Novelo, A. & Anderson, C. A. Climate Change and Psychology: Effects of Rapid Global Warming on Violence and Aggression. Curr. Clim. Change Rep. 5, 36–46 (2019).

22.       Gaffney, J. & Hovenden, E. Towards Linking Climate and Weather Phenomena to Road Safety Outcomes Part 1 of 3: The Collective Involvement of Weather Manifestations. J. Road Saf. 33, 5–15 (2022).

23.       Koetse, M. J. & Rietveld, P. The impact of climate change and weather on transport: An overview of empirical findings. Transp. Res. Part Transp. Environ. 14, 205–221 (2009).

24.       Markolf, S. A., Hoehne, C., Fraser, A., Chester, M. V. & Underwood, B. S. Transportation resilience to climate change and extreme weather events – Beyond risk and robustness. Transp. Policy 74, 174–186 (2019).

25.       Austroads. Impact of climate change on road infrastructure. https://www.bitre.gov.au/sites/default/files/cr_001_climate_change.pdf (2004).

26.       World Health Organization. Health in the green economy: health co-benefits of climate change mitigation - transport sector. (World Health Organization, 2012).

27.        Fortington, L., Gamage, P., Cartwright, A. & Bugeja, L. Exertional heat fatalities in Australian sport and recreation. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 24, 787–792 (2021).

28.        Lansbury Hall, N. & Crosby, L. Climate Change Impacts on Health in Remote Indigenous Communities in Australia. Int J Environ Health Res 32, 487–502 (2022).

29.        Hansen, A. et al. Extreme heat and climate change: Adaptation in culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities. https://nccarf.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Hansen_2013_Extreme_heat_CALD_communities.pdf (2013).

30.        AIHW. Let’s talk about the weather: injuries related to extreme weather. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/injury/extreme-weather-injuries/contents/about (2023).

Find out more

Providing a summary of injury prevention evidence together in one location, the Evidence Bank aims to increase the awareness of reliable, accurate and authoritative injury-related research pieces.

Injury Matters acknowledges and respects the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the custodians of the land on which we work, live and build our lives, families, and communities. We pay our respects to the First Nations People of this country, their cultures and Elders past, present and emerging.

Injury Matters strives to be culturally sensitive as we represent the Western Australian community in our imagery. Please be advised that our website or resources may contain images, videos, or voices of people who have since passed away.

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