A National Strategy to end the ‘climate debate’

A fortnight ago, I woke to news that President Trump has removed the US from the Paris Climate Treaty. I can’t deny that the news was a blow to my often-fragile sense of hope. With the resurgence of neo-conservatism, the apparent increasing frequency of acts of terrorism and the ever-growing shadow of inequality, it can feel that there is little cause for optimism.

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I take courage, however, in the knowledge that with or without Trump, the work to protect human health and well-being from climate change is well underway.

Yesterday, the Climate and Health Alliance released a policy framework that enables us to accommodate the unique complexities arising from the relationship between human health and our warming climate.

The ‘climate debate’ is a thing of the past. The medical and scientific communities are unequivocal in their statement that climate change poses an “unacceptably high and potentially catastrophic risk to human health”.

My own climate activism intensified after entry into medical school, when I realised that climate change threatens the enormous milestones humanity has passed in improving the quality of life of huge populations around the world. Indeed an increasingly volatile climate amplifies each and every of the inequities that challenge our community.

We simply can’t advocate for global health without a healthy planet.

We who live in the land of ‘droughts and flooding plains’ are particularly vulnerable to the changing climate. We all know someone affected by the Black Saturday Bushfires or Cyclone Debbie. Our communities face the growing risk of heat-related illnesses and occupational health impacts. Climate change stands to exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and threatens the security of our food and water. Our nation of stoics will endure mental illness and stress in the wake of disasters, sleepless nights kept awake by fears of environmental damage and concern about climate change, and a sinister growth of domestic violence.

Those in power in Australia have been slow to cotton on to the profoundly human and social nature of this crisis. As such, Australia’s health sector is underprepared to deal with the health risks associated with climate change, and equally, to capitalise on the benefits of mitigation actions. Communities have already been left anxious about the inability of the healthcare system to respond to recent events such as Melbourne’s November 2016 asthma thunderstorm and the 2011 Queensland floods.

President JFK once stated that ‘In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity’. He was a poor translator of Mandarin – his statement was in fact incorrect – but the sentiment holds true. As famously reported in the Lancet in 2015, action on climate change could be the greatest opportunity for public health of our time.

For example, emissions reduction strategies that reduce air pollution will help reduce the incidence of respiratory diseases, heart attack and stroke. A mere 10% reduction in particulate matter emissions in Sydney would lead to approximately 650 fewer premature deaths, and 700 fewer hospital visits for respiratory and cardiovascular conditions.

Shifting to more active and public forms of transport reduces emissions, and would help tackle obesity, diabetes, depression and some cancers. Indeed Australian researchers suggest that a mere 10% reduction in physical inactivity would result in 6,000 fewer incident cases of disease, 2,000 fewer deaths.

Reducing the social and economic burden of ill-health while making accelerated progress towards climate goals will create extraordinary monetary benefits. If strategies are carefully designed, the financial savings associated with avoided ill-health and productivity gains can outstrip the costs of implementation.

The IMF calculated that a price on CO2 emissions in Australia would result in savings of $11.5 per tonne of CO2 due to domestic co-benefits alone, particularly health co-benefits from reduced air pollution (…and those figures leave aside the global climate benefits!).

Australia has the tools required to both reduce our emissions in line with preventing 2 degrees of warming and to concurrently provide significant improvements to health and wellbeing. Our vast renewable energy potential is well documented, we know we can transition to 100% renewables in a short time frame. Yet we are lagging behind comparable countries when it comes to protecting the health of its citizens from climate change.

There could not be a better time for Australia’s health experts to offer a way forward in responding to this unprecedented set of challenges and opportunities.

The Climate and Health Alliance’s framework for a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Well-Being was borne out of consultation with Australia’s professional health and hospital groups, health leaders, academics, scientists, parliamentarians and policymakers, and reflects a united call for stronger action on climate change.

A National Strategy for Climate, Health and Well-Being would enable Australia to adequately respond to the risks to health from climate change. Promoting education and awareness about climate change and health among health professionals and the wider community would enable both to be better prepared.

The framework calls for strengthening the research capacity to identify population groups and communities particularly vulnerable to health risks from climate change, and develop strategies to reduce those risks. Further, enabling our researchers to quantify the health benefits of different emissions-reduction scenarios would guide climate policy choices.

We know what needs to be done to mitigate much of the damage that is underway . What we currently lack is the political will to protect our communities from the health impacts of climate change.

So many of Australia’s public health professionals hope to share our insight into the inextricable connections between climate and health. We intend to build power across the health sector of a nature that will make inertia on climate action politically untenable.

In tackling the climate crisis we have an unprecedented opportunity to create a fairer, healthier and more compassionate community for us all. The clock is ticking – and with a clear pathway forward, we are well positioned to face this race against time.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Doctus Project.