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The government has been asked repeatedly to develop a plan to address the health risks associated with climate change, so why is nothing being done? By Paddy Manning.

Govt ignores health risks of climate change

Health Minister Greg Hunt.
Credit: Rohan Thomson / Getty Images

The federal government has failed to develop a national strategy to reduce the health risks of climate change, despite repeated calls for such a plan and acknowledgement by a federal minister that there was a clear “policy gap” in Australia’s response to the emerging “global health crisis” of a changing climate.

Documents released under freedom of information laws to The Saturday Paper provide evidence of years of inaction, including confirmation that the federal Department of Health has not undertaken specific modelling on the costs and impacts of climate change to human health.

Most recently, a 2018 senate inquiry recommended the government develop a strategy to address the health risks of climate change. A spokesperson for the Department of Health told The Saturday Paper the government is still considering the inquiry’s recommendations.

“The Minister for the Environment, the Hon Sussan Ley MP, is the lead for coordinating the whole-of-government response to the Inquiry’s recommendations,” the spokesperson wrote, noting the Health Department is providing input.

A copy of the Morrison government’s response to the 2018 senate inquiry, which has not been made public, was included in the FOI documents with significant redactions, because it referenced “preliminary opinions, advice and considerations which are still being used to develop policy, and explore the impacts and future implications of climate change”, according to the Health Department. The Saturday Paper is appealing that decision.

The World Health Organization in 2015 identified climate change as “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century”, likely to account for an additional 250,000 global deaths a year from 2030 onwards due to rising malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. Experts have also warned about the relationship between climate change and the risk of pandemics such as Covid-19.

“Zoonotic diseases, that jump from animals to humans, are one of those diseases that have been anticipated and projected to increase in a warming world,” says Fiona Armstrong, executive director of the Climate and Health Alliance. “So, the emergence of the Covid-19 coronavirus is exactly what experts have been predicting we will see as the planet warms.”

Armstrong says the lack of data collected by the Australian government on the health impacts of climate change is deliberate. “Governments work very hard not to know anything,” she says, “stripping money out of research funding – really, actively doing that – to avoid doing something about it.”

Armstrong points to a 2017 peer-reviewed article in the journal Nature Climate Change, which found that since a major report commissioned by the National Health and Medical Research Council called for urgent investment in research on the impacts of climate change on human health more than 25 years ago, less than 0.1 per cent of Australian health funding has been allocated to the area.

In its response to questions from The Saturday Paper, the Health Department cited funding for scientific research to build capacity to predict climate extremes and said that in the wake of the 2019-20 bushfire season the federal government had contributed $5 million for smoke-related research under the Medical Research Future Fund, as well as $76 million for a mental health support package for those impacted.

But the government’s own ministers were warning about the threat climate change poses to health long before the summer’s devastating bushfires.

In October 2016, Ken Wyatt, then assistant minister for Health, spoke at a leaders’ roundtable discussion organised by the Climate and Health Alliance as part of consultation on its “National Strategy on Climate, Health and Wellbeing for Australia”.

“We need to acknowledge that there is
a policy gap in responding to what is emerging as a global health crisis,” Wyatt told attendees.

Those at the roundtable were “pleasantly surprised”, Fiona Armstrong says, that the minister appeared to have “a strong appreciation for health impacts of climate change and understood that it was a real and current threat to the health of Australians”.

A spokesperson for Minister Wyatt told The Saturday Paper he had no way of telling whether the speech written for Wyatt was the one he delivered at the 2016 event, and it should not be taken as the position or view of the minister, deflecting further questions back to Health Minister Hunt’s office.

In 2018, a senate inquiry into the impacts of climate change on housing, buildings and infrastructure recommended that “the Australian government work with the state and territory governments to develop a national climate change and health strategy”.

More than 50 health bodies have since backed calls for a national strategy on climate and health, including the Australian Medical Association, which last year declared climate change is a “health emergency”.

The Labor opposition also proposed to develop a climate and health strategy ahead of the last election. In a speech at the University of Sydney in November 2019, given as Australia’s bushfire crisis worsened, shadow Health minister Chris Bowen called for climate change to be added to the list of “National Health Priority Areas”.

A subsequent departmental briefing note to Hunt noted there was “no formal process or criteria for agreeing new priority areas or reviewing current priority areas”.

Bowen tells The Saturday Paper this shows there is “absolutely no obstacle” to including climate change as a priority area, but the federal government had done nothing about it.

“I think it’s part of their broader climate change scepticism,” he says. “If they acknowledged the health impacts of climate change, they would have to acknowledge the need for strong policy action on climate change, so they won’t do it.”

Bowen says the United States under President Donald Trump had done more with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actively promoting, researching and preparing strategies for the health impacts of climate change than Australia, while Britain’s National Health Service had a sustainable development strategy. “It’s extraordinary that so little work has been put in by the federal government,” Bowen says.

A number of the FOI documents refer to the department’s contribution to the “National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework”, developed by the interdepartmental National Resilience Taskforce, which was co-ordinated by the Department of Home Affairs but has since been disbanded.

In the aftermath of the Black Summer bushfires, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the ABC’s Insiders program that this framework was only approved by the Emergency Ministers Council in 2019. The 2019-20 budget, he added, had invested more than $130 million to ensure “resilience and the adaption that we need in our community right across the country to deal with longer, hotter, drier seasons that increase the risk of bushfire”.

However, according to reporting in The Australian Financial Review, the framework was drafted in mid-2018 but was ignored by the government for the next 18 months.

Bowen doubts the interdepartmental taskforce played much of a role: “Certainly I’ve met with many experts in climate change and health – doctors, other advocates – and nobody has ever referred to any work being done by this committee.”

The FOI documents also refer to the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), which has been the main public health advisory body to the national cabinet during the Covid-19 pandemic. The AHPPC has identified “climate change as an emerging priority in its Strategic Plan for 2019-2023”, according to the documents.

“I’d be fascinated to know what they’re doing or what they have ever done,” says Fiona Armstrong. “Any evidence of any action arising from that is completely opaque, as far as I’m concerned.”

Chris Bowen says that if the AHPPC has a strategic plan, it has been kept secret. He describes the committee as “non-porous”, adding that “we don’t know what the AHPPC is working on at a particular time, its minutes aren’t published … It’s a disappointing level of transparency, i.e. zero.”

A spokesperson for the Health Department said the AHPPC’s engagement with climate change was supported by two of its subcommittees – the Environmental Health Standing Committee (enHealth) and the National Health Emergency Management Standing Committee (NHEMS) – but did not provide details of any work being conducted or a copy of the strategic plan.

While the federal government has not developed a national strategy on climate and health, state governments, including Queensland and Victoria, have pushed ahead with their own. Western Australia will shortly release the report of a year-long inquiry led by its former chief health officer Tarun Weeramanthri.

Armstrong says that when the Climate and Health Alliance worked on the Queensland government’s climate and health strategy, consultations showed only about 12 per cent of hospitals and health services had conducted a climate risk assessment.

Without doing a risk assessment at a national level, says Armstrong, the federal Health Department has “no idea what the risks are of climate change to their infrastructure, to their workforce, to their supply chains”.

She likens the inaction to the federal government’s failure to prepare for the impacts of Covid-19 on aged-care facilities. “It suggests that there was zero preparedness in relation to another foreseeable risk,” she says.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has repeatedly written to internal and external stakeholders indicating that the federal government has “a range of programs” to deal with the health effects of climate change, which “can be scaled up or down” as necessary.

In a 2018 letter to Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie, Hunt said the government’s “incremental approach to adapting to the health effects of climate change will ensure that Australia is able to track any amplification of existing health issues, and direct resources where needed”.

Armstrong says the Climate and Health Alliance has received very similarly worded correspondence from the minister in recent years. “The fact that this is all just being repeated, you know, almost like a mantra to so many different stakeholders over such a long period is just so dismissive and contemptuous. And the lack of action is disgracefully negligent when it comes to protecting the health of the community.”

The Saturday Paper sought a response to this article from Minister Hunt directly but received only a reply from his department.

Bowen says Hunt’s reluctance to tackle the issue is due, in part, to his previous portfolio of Climate Change and Environment.

“I don’t want to get too personal but as a statement of fact, he was Environment minister before he was Health minister,” says Bowen. “He oversaw the dismantling of the carbon price. He was asked when he was Environment minister about the climate change impacts on bushfires and he said if you check Wikipedia, you’ll see Australia has always had bushfires. I mean, that’s the sort of mindset he brings to the task.

“So, at that level, I’m unsurprised that he’s refusing to prioritise this, because he’s got a track record when it comes to climate change, and it’s not a great one.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 22, 2020 as "Waiting for a change".

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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly.