Ramping up councils’ climate change role

Climate change impacts on urban and regional communities requires action at all levels of government, with councils at the forefront of planning, adapting and preparing for widespread health and wellbeing problems.

While local government resources may be limited, Flinders University research is highlighting the potential for well-qualified environmental health officers (EHOs) to play an increased role in the day-to-day planning for climate change preparedness, resilience and recovery.

The new study looks at the potential for EHOs to use their knowledge and skills in managing public health issues, consumer protection, stormwater and waste management to help augment councils’ responses to rising health challenges associated with climate change, including the potential for communicable disease outbreaks and extreme weather events.

Professor Jim Smith, consultant and Flinders University environmental health lecturer.

“We have developed an expanded framework for local environmental health practice which encourages more foresight and capacity for councils to be more proactive in this space,” says Flinders University Professor James Smith, from the College of Science and Engineering.

“We have found that although councils and their EHOs are across the local public health disaster management aspects associated with climate change, they are not so with the day-to-day public health impacts which will only increase over time.”

An online survey of local government across Australia highlighted a general lack of awareness of the health impacts of climate change outside of a disaster or emergency scenario.

About 3,600 EHOs are employed by councils around Australia, with one of their main duties covering food safety.

However, EHOs’ daily contact with the businesses and communities finds them at the coalface in assessing and responding to rising challenges, says Professor Smith.

“For example, with food safety it is critical to keep cold food at or below 5C from paddock to plate. But with increasing temperatures and humidity, rising energy costs, increased energy usage of refrigeration units, and projected changes in the ecology of food-borne pathogens, there will be a need for heightened awareness and risk assessment by EHOs of local food manufacturing, retail food services, catering, community events and community services like Meals on Wheels.

“At the same time, there are no general minimum cooling regulations for prescribed accommodation such as motels and boarding houses – or cool public placed such as shopping malls in the country – so heatwave conditions are emerging as a major health risk under global warming.

“As the risks increase, we hope to see more engagement from EHOs in councils to build and enhance climate change adaption planning in communities,” says Professor Smith, a consultant and senior lecturer in environmental health at Flinders University.

The article – Climate Change and Health: Local Government Capacity for Health Protection in Australia (2023) by James C Smith, Harriet Whiley and Kirstin E Ross – has been published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health DOI: 10.3390/ijerph20031750.

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