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Climate change impacts on our health and wellbeing

Climate change impacts on our health and wellbeing

Key points

  • The effects of climate change are already having consequences for human health.
  • The impacts of climate change can worsen symptoms of many health conditions, such as heart disease, asthma and other lung conditions, and mental health. 
  • More frequent and intense weather events caused by climate change can lead to more emergency room visits, hospitalisations and deaths. These events may also affect electricity supply, transport and communication systems, which in turn will affect our ability to meet an increased health services demand.
  • Healthcare systems in NSW are working to improve their resilience and sustainability by addressing climate risk, implications to service delivery and reducing their carbon footprint.
  • In collaboration with the University of Sydney, the NSW Government oversees an extensive research program, so we can better understand and prepare for climate impacts on human health. 

The importance of health and wellbeing in NSW

The health of our planet is closely linked to our own health and wellbeing. Valuable resources , such as fresh air, water, food quality and quantity, fibre and amenity are all provided by our environment. A healthy environment also helps to protect us from extreme temperatures, droughts, storms, flooding and other weather events which are projected to increase with climate change. 

We also benefit physically and mentally from nature. Access to the ocean, river systems, bushland and forests offers recreational activities that are important for human health and wellbeing, and which we enjoy. This is especially important for our Aboriginal community, with connection to Country critical to Aboriginal culture and heritage.

How our health and wellbeing are affected by climate change in NSW

Since health and wellbeing are closely linked to the health of our environment, changes as a result of climate change can affect our health and wellbeing.

Vulnerable groups across our community are particularly at risk including:

  • people who are socio-economically disadvantaged
  • rural and geographically isolated communities
  • people with disabilities
  • children and older people
  • pregnant women and unborn children
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

There are different types of impacts of climate change on human health.

Heat-related effects

Increasing temperatures and more frequent and intense heatwaves can result in more heat-related symptoms and deaths. Warmer temperatures can also worsen symptoms of heart and lung disease. 

Increased temperatures can lead to specific effects:

  • Urban heat-island – Cities can trap heat in a process known as the ‘heat island effect’ contributing to higher daytime temperatures, reduced night-time cooling, and higher air pollution levels. These contribute to increased deaths and illnesses. Because cities have a higher population than rural areas, more people may be affected by this process.
  • Vector-borne diseasesIncreasing temperatures along with changing rainfall patterns can also change the distribution of vector-borne diseases. For example, warmer temperatures can accelerate growth of viruses in mosquitoes and extend the area in which mosquito populations can live. New information and strategies are emerging to monitor and address this risk.
Air quality effects

Climate change can cause poor air quality, which is closely linked to negative health outcomes.

More frequent and intense bushfires can produce more smoke, with poor air quality days becoming more frequent. People with asthma and other lung conditions, diabetes and heart conditions are most at risk from poor air quality, particularly fine particulate matter (PM2.5).  

Climate change can also affect pollen production, leading to worsened lung conditions such as asthma and allergic conditions such as hay fever.

The NSW air quality monitoring network provides current information on a range of air pollutants to the community to help manage air quality impacts to our health.

Rainfall effects

Heavy rainfall and floods can: cause sewage overflows, contaminate drinking water supplies, and cause disease outbreaks. 

Reduced rainfall and droughts can increase some pathogens in water and make it more difficult for water authorities to control water quality. Drought and hot weather can also increase cyanobacteria (blue–green algae) blooms in waterways and dams which can be toxic to our river systems and all life dependent on these waterways. 

Extreme weather effects

Storms, and changing rainfall and temperatures could reduce local food yields and food quality. Decreased food production will increase prices of food, which can affect people’s access to required nutrition.

Extreme weather events can also have an effect on our energy supply. This can lead to blackouts, which can affect the community’s ability to stay safe and comfortable (e.g. loss of cooling in homes) and increase the risk of heat-related health problems.

Extreme weather events also affect health service delivery, with potential increases in presentations to emergency departments at the same time as power outages, and difficulties with communication systems and transport. 

Mental health effects

Climate change can affect mental health, particularly among populations in regional areas and our youth.

Weather events such as floods and heavy downpours can have a negative effect on mental health. In NSW’s northern rivers region, many residents reported mental health impacts from the 2017 floods.

Farmers and regional communities experiencing decreased productivity and incomes due to drought are at increased risk of depression and suicide.

Adapting to the impacts of climate change on our health and wellbeing in NSW

Climate change is affecting the health and wellbeing of the people of NSW, and various strategies will be needed to increase resilience and reduce health impacts.

Preparing for climate impacts

It will be important to accelerate public health and medical interventions to reduce the health impacts of climate change. Such interventions include:

  • better management of the environmental determinants of health (such as providing water and sanitation)
  • infectious disease surveillance
  • strengthening the resilience of health systems to extreme weather events.
  • public education of climate impacts and risks to health

The NSW Government is supporting research in this area through the NSW Human Health and Social Impacts Node. This collaboration between the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment; NSW Health; and the University of Sydney is researching urban design, the built environment, and physical and mental health. 

Green spaces in our urban environments help to mitigate climate change impacts and improve environmental conditions such as air and water quality and reduce heat impacts. The NSW Government is helping to improve NSW’s open spaces.

Reducing emissions

Global, regional and local efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by choosing different transport, food and energy use options can result in improved health, particularly through reducing air pollution.

The healthcare system itself is a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, so healthcare providers are looking at ways to lower its impact on the environment. For example, some Local Health Districts are investigating how their services could have less environmental impact.