The generally poor health and other disadvantages experienced by many indigenous Australians living in remote areas will be worsened by the impact of climate change, according to Dr Donna Green, a researcher in the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre.
"Their vulnerability to climate change is intensified by the social and economic disadvantage they already experience - the result of factors that include decades of inadequate housing and public services, and culturally inappropriate medical services," says Dr Green in a recent article published in the Medical Journal of Australia, written with colleagues Ursula King from ANU, and Joe Morrison from Charles Darwin University.
"We argue that it is vital to acknowledge the significance of this situation now, so that anticipatory adaptive policies can be implemented.'
Climate change is expected to bring hotter day and night temperatures across northern Australia, where cardiovascular and respiratory diseases are more prevalent and many elderly people have inadequate facilities to cope with increased heat stress.
Communicable diseases, such as bacterial diarrhoea, are more common in hot dry conditions and these may increase without extra preventive action.
The authors note that one study has predicted an average temperature increase of between 1.0 and 3.5 C by 2050 would result in an increase of up to 18% in diarrhoea case in Alice Springs. Mosquito-borne diseases, such as dengue fever, may present new problems in places such as North Queensland as well.
The report says Aborigines were also more at risk because of their close ties to traditional lands: "If the community-owned country (land) becomes 'sick' through environmental degradation, climate impacts, or inability of the traditional owners to fulfil cultural obligations through ongoing management and habitation of their land, the people of that land will feel this 'sickness' themselves," they say.
They argue that Australia needs to broaden its focus beyond western scientific methods, possibly creating a national Aborigine health college to help educate more indigenous health workers.