health and human services climate change adaptation action plan

Released on 06/08/2021

cohealth’s submission to the Victorian Government’s consultation on this plan emphasises the role of the community health sector in adaptation action, and the need to work closely with communities.

cohealth welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the development of the Victorian Government’s Health and Human Services Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan 2022-2026. 

Climate change is the greatest health emergency facing our planet, with the WHO describing it as the defining issue for public health in the 21st century. Climate change affects health in many ways: directly by the increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as prolonged heatwaves, floods and bushfires; and indirectly through worsening air quality, changes in the spread of infectious and vector-borne diseases, risks to food safety and drinking water quality, and effects on mental health.

These impacts are disproportionately greater for communities that experience economic, social or health disadvantage because of the unequal and unfair distribution of power, money, and other resources in society.

The extreme weather events of the summer of 2019/20 – bushfires and lengthy drought – followed by the COVID-19 pandemic will exact a huge toll on physical and mental health and serve as a warning that urgent action is required to reduce the threats posed by climate change and to adapt to these threats. 

cohealth welcomes the Victorian Government’s action on climate change, including developing the Health and Human Services Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan (the Plan). As noted in the Plan, the Health and Human Services system is already being significantly impacted by climate change through more serious weather events. Not only do these place great burdens on individuals, families and communities, but the services that support them experience risks to facilities and infrastructure, increased demand, disruption to networks and supplies and direct impacts on staff and volunteers. Safeguarding vital services is imperative, and cohealth welcomes the commitment in the Plan for comprehensive planning, investment and actions to address the challenges posed by climate change, and to support services to adapt.

cohealth particularly welcomes the emphasis in the plan to consider the disproportionate impact of climate change on disadvantaged groups, and the recognition that climate change will increase social and economic inequalities.

Response to the Health and Human Services Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan

Scope of the Plan – embedding community health services

Victoria’s extensive network of independent community health community health organisations deliver a range of primary health, human services and community-based support to meet local community needs. Some of the many services community health organisations provide are: medical care, nursing, dental, allied health, mental health services, alcohol and other drugs, disability support, health promotion, child and family services, support for victims of crime, support for people experiencing homelessness, refugee and asylum seeker health and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health programs.

Notably, community health services have a deliberate focus on key groups of people: those who experience social or economic disadvantage, experience poorer health outcomes and have complex health needs or limited access to appropriate health care. As such, community health services work directly with the individuals and communities who will bear a disproportionate impact from climate change. 

With the vital role that community health services play in the health and social support service system it is essential that they are explicitly articulated in the Health and Human Services Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan, and considered a key partner in this work. Without this there is a risk that community health services will not be included in planning and implementation activities, or be eligible for any investment that accompanies the Plan.  

Investment in adaptation actions

Community health services, like many health and human services, have limited capacity to implement the adaptation work needed to ensure the resilience of their infrastructure and services. Appropriate investment – financial and expertise – in the community health sector, as well as the broader health and human services sectors, is required to: create a sustainable and climate-resilient health sector; improve infrastructure resilience; develop leadership and governance; support healthy and resilient communities; and for education and capacity building.  

In addition, the impacts of climate change are likely to increase demand for health and human services. Increased investment will be required to provide the surge capacity needed during extreme weather events, and to meet the ongoing increase in demand.  

Supporting communities that experience disadvantage 

The clear focus in the Plan on supporting communities that experience disadvantage because of the unfair distribution of resources to adapt to climate change must be maintained as the Plan progresses. Due to the inequalities in Australian society, these groups have the least resources to respond to the threats posed by climate change. As such they will experience a disproportionate impact of the effects of climate change. These groups must be adequately supported and resourced – including through financial investment – to ensure they can stay healthy in a changing climate.

Community partnership

Involving communities in climate change responses and in the Health and Human Services Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan will be critical to their success. COVID-19 has demonstrated the vital importance of involving local communities in health planning and responses to ensure their diverse needs and perspectives are addressed. A one size fits all approach does not work. Communities have a sound understanding of the needs of their members, and the best mechanisms for engaging them in planning and approaches. This may involve engaging community leaders, providing place-based responses, and engaging bi-cultural and peer workers.

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