The Environment and Our Health
Updated: Jan 5
This is a submission I wrote for my university course. It includes a brief discussion focused on the influence of climate change on the current drought in the southern region of Australia, and the impact this has on the mental health and well being of farmers, farm workers, and farming communities. There is obviously a larger picture than what is discussed here, however as this was for an assessment task I was required to include specific interrelated aspects within a tight word count. Despite this, I thought I'd like to share this piece in the lead up to the Australian Federal Election as a method of highlighting the important interrelationship between the health of Australians and environmental policies and action. I hope you find this informative and that it encourages you to look further into Australia's failure to meet climate goals.
The Impact of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Associated Drought on Southern Australian Farmers and Farm Workers
Driven by greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, much of the southern region of Australia is in the midst of severe drought (King, Ukkola & Henley, 2018). The outcomes of such prolonged dry periods are felt across the nation however for farmers and farm workers, whose communities battle through the environmental crisis, the implications pose a threat to their livelihoods and well being (Climate Council, 2018). Contributing to the vulnerabilities they experience are socioeconomic stress and mental health concerns, exacerbated by poor health and environmental policy planning and management. Despite this, through acknowledgement of the cumulative effects of climate change, weather pattern forecast, and the utilisation of resilient community attributes, the burden inflicted by drought on farmers and farm workers in the region may be alleviated (Edwards, Gray & Hunter, 2018, p. 5; Doyle, 2018).
The presently neutral status of historical causes of drought in the region, including naturally occurring environmental activity such as El Nino and Positive Southern Annular Mode, solidify the impact of human activity on the current water crisis (Doyle, 2018; King, 2017). Failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions internationally has directly influenced an increase in average global temperature annually since 1880, reflected in the incidence of hotter, drier conditions year round in southern Australia (Climate Council, 2018; Kompas, Van Ha & Che, 2018). At the conclusion of 2018 annual rainfall was considered 11% below average in the region, while record temperatures were endured nationwide. Projections that secure their foundations within these findings inform that this trend is set to continue, with the meteorological, agricultural, and hydrological variants of drought indicated to be exacerbated by climate change (Doyle, 2018; King, et al., 2018). Despite such predictions, the presently stagnant approach to climate action in Australia is based upon failure to implement active climate policy by Federal and State Governments (Readfern, 2018).
Australia’s engagement to the Paris Climate Accord in 2015 indicated national commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% of 2005 levels by 2030 - a minimal figure considered conservative and potentially deficient. Involving 195 signing countries, the agreement is the first legally binding global climate deal (Kilvert, 2018). It maintains commitment to sustaining global warming at a level below 2 degrees celcius up to 2100 through action to decrease international greenhouse gas emissions. Despite promoting dedication to taking action on climate change internationally, the 2018 United Nations Gas Emission Report indicates that Australia - among many other nations - is not on track to meet the targets of the Accord (Kompas, et al., 2018; Readfern, 2018).
Australia’s failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is primarily attributed to energy production. Despite state led policies dedicated to increasing the uptake of solar, batteries and kinetic energy, coal seam gas remains the leading energy source nationwide. This factor is attributed to the ongoing governmental approval of mining, combined with consistent ministerial denial of climate change (Kilvert, 2018; Climate Action Tracker, 2019). “Under current policies greenhouse gas emissions are headed for an increase of 9% above 2005 levels by 2030, rather than the 15–17% decrease” as determined in the Paris Climate Accord (Climate Action Tracker, 2019). Such failure to implement appropriate climate policy has led to ineffective action targeted to addressing additional industrial climate stressors (Kilvert, 2018).
For the agriculture industry - a secondary contributor to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and the primary consumer of water - the consequences of this national failure are substantial (Climate Council, 2018). Loss of livestock, destruction of sustainable crops, and soil erosion are the agricultural elements that expose the severity of drought (Edwards, et al., 2018, p. 5; Climate Council, 2018). In such dry conditions Australian farmers, particularly young males, experience an increased risk of stress and trauma related mental health conditions, including major depressive disorder and generalised anxiety disorder. Subsequently they are considered the most vulnerable Australian population group to suicide or suicide ideation; a fact considered to be the outcome of several interrelating socioeconomic and environmental determinants (Kunde, Kolves, Kelly, Reddy, De Leo., 2017).
Austin, et al., report in the publication “Drought-related stress among farmers: findings from the Australian Rural Mental Health Study”, that the interrelationship between decreased farm productivity, unemployment, associated financial stress and rurality, is a direct risk factor for isolation and ensuing mental health disorders (2018). It is important to acknowledge that for farmers who live and work on their farms, the two are intrinsically linked; exacerbating the aforementioned stressors and mental health risk factors when compared with farm workers (Edwards, Gray & Hunter, 2014). Applying additional strain is local economic instability and the subsequent decline of local resources, including health services (Kunde, et al., 2017). Inadequate accessibility to mental health resources compounds such issues, as recent inquiry has found significant inequality between urban and regional areas with consideration to mental healthcare (Mental Health Commission of New South Wales, 2018). The presence of perceived social stigma enhances this divide and aggravates the prevalence of undiagnosed, mismanaged mental health conditions, and engrained reluctance to pursue financial support schemes (Austin, et al., 2018).
The initial Australian National Drought Policy, implemented successfully between 1992 and 2014, encompassed a federal and state agreement allowing the provision of relief packages promoting self reliance and drought planning for Australian farms. Consistent revisions increased accessibility and maintained the intention of forward planning with reference to the forecasted implications of climate change and the subsequent impacts on socio-economic stability of Australia’s farming regions (Botterill, 2014). Considered in contrast to 2019, whereby the provision of relief is held within current economic agricultural policy, including the provision of the Farm Household Allowance. The Australian Federal Government initiative entitles eligible farming families to up to four cumulative years of financial assistance in times of hardship. It has reached over 11,100 farming families since 2014, however it is indicated by the Department of Agriculture & Water Resources that there are many more who have not applied to receive such entitlements (Department of Agriculture & Water Resources, 2019). In addition, Drought Concession Loans are accessible to businesses who have been running for 3 years or more, have minimal levels of debt, and have been significantly financially affected by the presence of drought (National Farmers Federation, 2018). In juxtaposition to their purpose, these initiatives have not been shy to controversy. Emphasis on their provision and entitlement requirements highlights their inaccessibility, disregard for socioeconomic implications and associated health outcomes, and the exclusion of long term environmental influence (Brissenden, 2018; Botterill, 2014).
With reference to the Australian National Drought Policy, successful drought assistance initiatives require the integration of financial support, health and support services, and long term environmental sustainability mechanisms enabling industrial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (Botterill, 2014; Stone, 2014). In achieving such, policy objectives should be inclusive of incentive and financial assistance to uptake renewable energy sources, informed risk management and planning with reference to climate predictions, and effective climate action by Government (Stone, 2014). In addition, recent annual federal budgets have seen increased expenditure on rural and regional mental health care resources. However, further allocated funding is required to assist farming communities in overcoming inaccessibility and associated stigma through the utilisation of community run organisations (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2019; Edwards, et al., 2018).
Attributed to community interaction and social cohesion, farming communities throughout Australia are applauded for their ongoing resilience; a factor that should be considered a core component of future drought policy (Edwards, et al., 2018). The benefits of such are based upon strong community foundations, and include reduced community drought related stress, with a subsequent positive influence on the incidence of personal drought related stress (Austin, et al., 2018). In addition, involvement of the community in the implementation of drought related policy enables continued community development and environmental planning and management (Edwards, et al., 2018).
The burden of drought on farmers and farm workers in the southern region of Australia has significantly impacted the socioeconomic stability of the region, with subsequent influence on the health and well being of their communities. As a result of failed drought policy and inaction on achieving the commitments within the Paris Climate Accord, the Australian Government is failing to address the vulnerabilities experienced by this population group. In responding to such, it is vital that policy encompassing community based initiatives that coincide with action targeted to overcoming the environmental threats inflicted by increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Austin, E., Handley, T., Kiem, A., Rich, J., Lewin, T., & Askland, H. et al. (2018). Drought-related stress among farmers: findings from the Australian Rural Mental Health Study. Medical Journal Of Australia, 209(4), 159-165. Retrieved 16th April 2019, from: https://www.mja.com.au/system/files/issues/209_04/10.5694mja17.01200.pdf
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2019). Rural and Remote Australians Overview. Retrieved 19th April 2019, from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports-data/population-groups/rural-remote-australians/overview
Botterill, L. (2014). Death of National Drought Policy takes us back to policy on the run. Retrieved 19th April 2019, from: https://theconversation.com/death-of-national-drought-policy-takes-us-back-to-policy-on-the-run-23289
Brissenden, M. (2018). Drought policy is always fraught, but farmers say it’s broken. Retrieved 19th April 2019, from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-10-02/drought-policy-is-always-fraught-but-farmers-say-its-broken/10326012
Climate Action Tracker. (2019). Australia. Retrieved 19th April 2019, from: https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/australia/
Doyle, K. (2018). What you need to know about droughts: Why they happen and how they are defined. Retrieved 16th April 2019, from: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-01/what-you-need-to-know-about-droughts/10051956
Edwards, B., Gray, M., Hunter, B. (2018). The Social and Economic Impacts of Drought. Retrieved 16th April 2019, from: http://csrm.cass.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/docs/2018/12/CSRM_WP5_2018_DROUGHT_2.pdf
Edwards, B., Gray, M., & Hunter, B. (2014). The Impact of Drought on Mental Health in Rural and Regional Australia. Social Indicators Research, 121(1), 177-194. Retrieved 16th April 2019, from: https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.laureate.net.au/docview/1650846574/18CDC91654264F7APQ/2?accountid=176901
Department of Agriculture & Water Resources. (2019). Farm Household Allowance Data Dashboard. Retireved 19th April 2019, from: http://www.agriculture.gov.au/ag-farm-food/drought/assistance/farm-household-allowance/dashboard
Kilvert, N. (2018). Australia not on target to hit Paris emissions goals, as UN warns global efforts must increase. Retrieved 17th April 2019, from: https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2018-11-28/climate-un-environment-report-australia-not-on-track-paris/10554058
King, A., Ukkola, A., Henley, B. (2018). Is Australia’s Drought Caused by Climate Change? It’s Complication. Retrieved 16th April 2019, from https://theconversation.com/is-australias-current-drought-caused-by-climate-change-its-complicated-97867
Kompas, T., Pham, V., & Che, T. (2018). The Effects of Climate Change on GDP by Country and the Global Economic Gains From Complying With the Paris Climate Accord. Earth's Future, 6(8), 1153-1173. Retrieved 19th April 2019, from https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1029/2018EF000922
Kunde, L., Kõlves, K., Kelly, B., Reddy, P., & De Leo, D. (2017). Pathways to Suicide in Australian Farmers: A Life Chart Analysis. International Journal Of Environmental Research And Public Health, 14(4), 352. Retrieved 16th April 2019, from: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/14/4/352
Mental Health Commission of New South Wales. (2018). The Accessibility and Quality of Mental Health Services in Regional and Remote Australia. Retrieved 16th April 2019, from: https://nswmentalhealthcommission.com.au/resources/accessibility-and-quality-of-mental-health-services-in-rural-and-remote-australia
National Farmers Federation. (2018). A comprehensive guide to available drought assistance options. Retrieved 19th April 2019, from: https://www.nff.org.au/read/6081/comprehensive-guide-available-drought-assistance-options.html
Readfern, G. (2018). Australia has no climate policy: a quick response to a drawn out farce. Retrieved 17th April 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/planet-oz/2018/aug/21/australia-has-no-climate-policy-a-quick-response-to-a-drawn-out-farce
Stone, R. (2014). Constructing a framework for national drought policy: the way forward - the way Australia Developed and Implemented the National Drought Policy. Water and Climate Extremes, 3, 117-125. Retrieved 19th April 2019, from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212094714000036