Jeremy Lasek – PHAA
In responding to COVID-19, governments everywhere, including in Australia, have dropped the ball on protecting the health of its citizens by taking their eye off the growing climate change crisis. This was one of the clear messages from last week’s Better Futures Forum, a three-day exchange of ideas and initiatives to achieve reduced carbon emissions and launch a commitment towards national climate action.
In a discussion forum on the health impacts of climate change, Public Health Association of Australia President, Professor Tarun Weeramanthri, lamented the loss of focus and progress on climate change during the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘We just have to stop subsidising and making future commitments around new coal and other fossil fuel developments; and Australia’s currently right in that space,’ Prof Weeramanthri said.
He said that while there was plenty of talk last year in Australia about a gas-led recovery which has now subsided ‘we still haven’t got a positive concept of what we should do in terms of a COVID-19 recovery.’ ‘This next couple of months might help us get there, if we can use the international negotiations to create pressure for a nationally-coherent response, especially prior to our election next year.’
Also speaking at the forum, Associate Professor Ying Zhang, co-chair of the MJA Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change for Australia, called for a national strategy to drive climate health and wellbeing. ‘The aim of our Countdown Project is to develop indicators and track the national progress of health and climate change to inform future policy changes in Australia, A/Prof Zhang said.
‘Although there has been positive action at a local and state level, there is still no national climate change adaptation plan in Australia.
‘Meanwhile globally, 50% of the 101 countries surveyed in the 2020 Global Countdown Report have developed a national health and climate change strategy.’
‘We’ve seen an increase in the share of renewable energies in Australia but compared with other similar developed countries, Australia lags far behind in terms of the transition to renewables.
‘In addition to highlighting the vulnerability to climate change, we have also identified opportunities to engage with and act on climate change issues for protecting Australian health, especially in a green recovery from the pandemic.
‘We recommend building community resilience to climate disasters and accelerating the transfer to renewable energy and public transport in order to achieve health benefits from climate change mitigation.’
A/Prof Zhang said the next Countdown report for 2021 would be released in October, shortly before the COP 26 Glasgow Climate Summit, timed to give another push to the government for changes in policy and direction.
Team Leader, Climate Change and Health at the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, told the Better Futures Forum, in dealing with COVID-19, it was important that governments not take their eyes of climate change.
‘In May of last year, even in the early stages of the pandemic, WHO published a manifesto for a healthy recovery from COVID-19. If we get those wrong then we end up down the path which is potentially disastrous for the climate and therefore automatically disastrous for public health, Dr Campbell-Lendrum said.
‘Stop subsidising pollution. If at the moment you take into account the health damages from the energy sources that we’re currently using around the world…the world effectively subsidises polluting energy sources by over 5 Trillion dollars a year…which is more than governments around the world spend on health and this is a ridiculous and ultimately destructive path.
‘We’re clear as we look at climate action and COVID-19 recovery, we have to also make sure we’re taking actions that are good for climate adaptation at the same time.
‘As we look towards the climate conference at the end of the year it’s clear this is the most important climate conference since Paris in 2015.
‘We are also very confident in making the case that health is actually the strongest positive argument for climate action,’ Dr Campbell-Lendrum added.
He told the forum, for the first time there was a recognition of the need for a formal health program within the Glasgow COP.
‘The WHO is also producing a report in consultation with the global health community on the health argument for climate action.
‘We’re currently carrying out public consultations on that and encouraging countries at the COP to sign up to commit to ensuring climate resilience of their health systems and greening their health systems.
‘Health care around the world is now responsible for 4-5% of global carbon emissions and we’re starting to see real movement – led by the National Health Service in England – to get to net zero health system within the UK by the 2040s.
‘We are also continuing to work with health care workers and health professional associations around the world to have this drum beat of support from within the health community for stronger climate action.
‘If you ask the people in the street what they’re concerned about with climate change – health is one of the options that tends to come out on top.
‘The final strength that we have is that the health workers and health community are not only one of the most numerous professions in the world, they are the most trusted profession in the world. There is nobody on the planet that is more trusted than a doctor, apart from a nurse.
Dr Campbell-Lendrum said the health and lives of millions are being impacted by global warming every day.
‘Where I’m based in Europe, we’re just smashing temperature records and last month was the hottest month globally – so we absolutely have to drive down emissions including to protect health,’ he said.
‘We also know that the health benefits will come from meeting the Paris Agreement. If you put a valuation on those, it would more than pay for the costs of mitigating climate change globally. And that’s just through improved air quality. So that’s another reason why health is such a strong argument for climate action.’
Prof Weeramanthri said we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the health narrative to highlight the very real impact of climate change on our daily lives.
‘The stories around heat and around air pollution are particularly easy to communicate with the public and make that link between climate change and health.
‘We’re living through these incredible extreme weather events and we need researchers and policy people and health people talking about how these things are related with the Australian public.’
Prof Weeramanthri said ahead of the next climate summit it’s crucial that leaders in public health demonstrate their commitment to work in partnership with governments to develop policy.
‘Our approach in Western Australia has been to say to government, ‘look we’re there with you… If you act, we’ll be right there beside you and supporting you because it can’t just be your job. It must be all of our jobs’.
‘Turn it into a positive; that the health aspects are the co-benefits argument. They’re all very, very positive – the economic savings argument – these are all wins for government. And it’s about partnership. It’s about being positive. It’s about seeing health as an asset.
‘At the same time we should use our professional expertise, networks and influence to help in levering people within government.
‘We’re quite powerful professionally, we’re trusted, and we’re important politically in all sorts of ways.’
Photo credit: Migs Reyes from Pexels