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As energy policy threatens our health, who cares about the children? (And some healthy reading on climate change)

Australia’s reliance on carbon intensive energy systems and failure to develop renewable energy sources is a critical health concern, according to a briefing paper prepared for a Health and Energy Policy roundtable meeting in Canberra tomorrow.

The paper (which can be downloaded from the Climate and Health Alliance website) argues that energy policy has failed to take health considerations into account, despite more than 40 years of warnings from the health sector.

“In Australia, the health implications of energy policy are not currently considered in policy decisions regarding the allocation of energy sector subsidies, in plans for Australia’s energy future, in decisions regarding new energy infrastructure projects, nor in energy trade,” the paper says.

“Major health care stakeholders, such as the Public Health Association of Australia, the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, the National Rural Health Alliance, the National Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility – Adaptation Research Network: Human Health, and the Climate and Health Alliance recognise that health and wellbeing is being compromised by energy policy choices in Australia and globally.”

The meeting aims to start work on a collaborative strategy for a healthy energy policy.

Meanwhile, in the article below, Dr Brad Farrant, an Adjunct Research Fellow in early childhood development at the University of Western Australia, argues that climate change should be seen as a threat to children’s health and wellbeing. He questions why children’s advocacy and research groups are not being more active on the issue, and suggests that at least part of the blame may lie with the commercial media.

(And below his article are some links to recommended reading on climate change and health).

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Failing them badly: who is protecting our children and grandchildren?

Brad Farrant writes:

Imagine this: scientists have discovered a new threat to the health and well being of our children and grandchildren, and it is bigger than any threat we have ever identified

Now imagine: virtually no one in power is prepared to tackle the challenge head-on. Very few of our leaders are doing anywhere near what it would take to prevent or lessen the threat. Worse still, most of our institutions are actually contributing to the threat.

Surely we would all be outraged. Surely we would demand that something be done immediately, that our leaders take responsibility for addressing the threat?

Well, this is precisely the situation regarding the threat climate change poses to our children and future generations. Yet the silence is deafening!

Medical scientists writing in the prestigious scientific journal The Lancet have told us that “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” Indeed, climate change is already harming our children.

Children are more vulnerable to climate change related diseases than adults with research showing that children suffer around 90% of the disease burden.

We also know that current Australian and international carbon reduction commitments are nowhere near enough. Unfortunately, decades of relative inaction means that, instead of the steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that are required to avoid dangerous climate change, the level of global emissions continues to increase. Hence the threat to our children and future generations grows larger with every passing day.

What frightens me most is that there is a multitude of ways in which our society is ignoring and contributing to this threat and virtually no one is taking sufficient action. We are failing our kids badly.

Despite trying to greenwash itself, the fossil fuel industry isn’t doing what’s required to protect our children. In fact quite the opposite; they continue to use their massive resources, political influence and anti-scientific propaganda to protect their profits at our children’s expense.

As pointed out by Bill McKibben, the fossil fuel industry already has plans to produce five times the amount of CO2 that is considered ‘safe’. The amount of carbon contained in the proven coal, oil and gas reserves is 2,795 gigatons. This is five times the amount scientists tell us we can pour into the atmosphere by midcentury (around 565 gigatons) and still have hope of avoiding dangerous climate change.

The breathtaking carelessness for our children doesn’t stop there. How about the enormous fossil fuel subsidies that currently exist? Why are we paying corporations to destroy our children’s future?

For the sake of our children we need state and federal politicians that are prepared to listen to the science and take urgent and adequate action to protect them from dangerous climate change.

Unfortunately, many of our elected representatives have done the opposite by repeatedly undermining and refusing to accept the science. To me, politicians and others who deny climate science are utterly irresponsible in the same way that the anti-vaccination lobby is: by ignoring the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence and the consensus of the relevant scientists in favour of their own ideology they are putting all children’s lives at risk.

They say we get the political leadership that we deserve. The current federal government seems poised to be thrown out of office at the next election in large part because they introduced a price on carbon pollution.

This first tiny step to help reduce the risk of dangerous climate change remains unpopular with voters even though it is supported by economists and the government watered it down immensely from what is actually required. Instead Australian’s look set to vote to axe the carbon tax’ in favour of the opposition’s direct action plan even though 85% of economists think that the direct action plan is not sound economic policy and few believe it will actually work.

Our politicians are not doing enough – yet we are not demanding that they do what’s required to protect our children and future generations.

We urgently need political, business and civil society leaders who are prepared to develop, support and implement adequate policies at local, state and national levels.

If our current leaders aren’t up to the job then we need them to step aside for people who are. Our leaders and the rest of us also need to continuously apply maximum pressure on the rest of the world’s leaders (including other wealthy high per-capita polluting countries like the USA and Canada) to get responsible, stand up to those with vested interests, and do what it takes to protect our children and future generations.

Yet the recent McKeon Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research in Australia – the review responsible for developing a 10-year strategic research plan for medical science in Australia – hasn’t addressed climate change at all. The initial report proposes several strategic research priorities, but there’s not one mention of climate change in the entire document. This failure to address the threat that climate change poses to our children’s health is inexcusable.

Perhaps it is because much of our commercial media have failed to adequately report and inform the public of the latest science demonstrating the scale of the threat and the urgency of the actions required. Indeed, biased and inadequate reporting along with much misinformation is a likely explanation for the decline in the proportion of young people that consider the environment (including climate change) an important issue today.

Mission Australia’s 2012 Youth Survey found that the environment fell from the leading issue identified by youth in both 2010 and 2011 to the sixth most identified issue in 2012. It’s a sad reflection on the Australian media that our young people are becoming less aware of the threat to their future at a time when scientists are telling us that action to avoid dangerous climate change is more urgently required than ever before.

Disappointingly, most child advocates and research institutions are yet to stand up and provide a voice in defence of children. Why aren’t these ‘child advocates’ leading the charge?

The physics of climate change isn’t interested in denial or excuses; it isn’t kidding around or negotiating, the longer we put off taking the necessary actions the worse it is going to get for our children and grandchildren.

Rather than burying our heads in the sand, it is well past time we started listening to those that understand the science and the scale of the threat and those that have done the work to provide innovative solutions.

If we are to have any chance of preventing dangerous climate change then we can no longer accept the excuse “climate change is not my responsibility” from anyone.

Do any of you honestly think that when our children and grandchildren are suffering the devastating consequences of our inaction on climate change they will let us off the hook and forgive us because “it wasn’t mum/dad/grandma/grandpa’s fault because it wasn’t in her/his job description”?

We say we love our children and would do anything to protect them – but the evidence suggests otherwise. We know the threat that climate change poses. We have at our disposal a range of proven alternatives to the use of fossil fuels as well as a range of other cost effective solutions we could use to address the threat. If we continue to fail to take adequate action to protect our children and future generations from dangerous climate change we will surely go down in history as Gen S – the most selfish generations of all time.

• Dr Brad Farrant is an Adjunct Research Fellow in early childhood development at the University of Western Australia. He is very concerned about the lack of adequate action to prevent dangerous climate change and the devastating impact this will have on children’s health and wellbeing.

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More reading recommended by Croakey 

• Picking up some of the themes above, the media’s role in contributing to climate change inaction has been getting some attention. An analysis of media and political framing of climate change shows how it has shifted over recent decades, in a way that has promoted public confusion and policy inaction. Writing at The Conversation, Maria Taylor, Associate Lecturer, Science and Journalism at Australian National University, concludes:

“While the science findings have stayed consistent since at least 1990, politicians and the media re-framed their communication, and that radically changed public knowledge about climate change and the will to respond. Thanks to this change, Australia has lost 20 years of potential action on emission reduction.”

Meanwhile, the Australian media’s general failure to link recent extreme weather events with a changing climate comes in for scrutiny from science communicator, Dr Paul Willis.  At ABC Science, Willis wrote:

“While news bulletins and front pages across the nation were filled with stories covering the heatwave and bushfires, the Australian media was slow off the mark to explore the link between these events and climate change. After more than a week of record temperatures and scorching bushfires, there were no articles that suggested climate change had a part to play in the catastrophe.

Let us hope that future discussions around climate change and what to do about it will be free of invented factoids and misinformation. It’s time to take the science seriously. We are witnessing the consequences of ignoring that science and pretending that climate change isn’t occurring. It’s a heavy price we are paying and that debt is only going to increase if we don’t wise up.”

• You might not know it from the headlines, but many countries have been making some steps on climate change action. An overview of global legislative action on climate change comes from the 3rd edition of  The GLOBE Climate Legislation Study (funded by the UK Government).

Overall, it reports “substantial legislative progress” in 18 of the 33 countries in the study, and limited developments in 14. For the first time, the study reports negative progress in one country – Canada (due to its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol and the repealing of its ‘flagship’ climate legislation).

The report says the limited progress in developed countries contrasts with the progress made in many developing countries in 2012. It says significant advances have been made in Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Kenya, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Korea and Vietnam. Mexico is probably the standout country for legislative progress in 2012.

• Meanwhile there is some good news from the US, with a new report finding that America’s carbon dioxide emissions last year fell to their lowest levels since 1994. Carbon dioxide emissions fell by 13 percent in the past five years, because of new energy-saving technologies and a doubling in the take-up of renewable energy. The report was compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) for the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE), covered by The Guardian and republished at Climate Central. The reduction brings America more than halfway towards President Obama’s target of cutting emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels over the next decade, the Bloomberg analysts said.

Across the Atlantic, however, the news isn’t so encouraging, according to Nicholas Stern, the author of the 2006 UK government-commissioned review, who now says he underestimated the risks of climate change. In an interview with The Guardian, he said:

“Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then.”

The Stern review pointed to a 75% chance that global temperatures would rise by between two and three degrees above the long-term average; Stern now believes we are “on track for something like four “. Had he known the way the situation would evolve, he says, “I think I would have been a bit more blunt. I would have been much more strong about the risks of a four- or five-degree rise.”

• Meanwhile, this is an example of the use of Twitter in climate advocacy and communications. The grabs below are from an exchange by Jeff Nesbitt, the Executive Director of Climate Nexus, with a Christian pastor and popular southern California radio talk show, David Housholder (@LibertyHous):

After tweeting, “Record snow in a warming world? The climate science is clear” and linking to a report about the US blizzard, Nesbitt was challenged by Housholder, who tweeted back “Dude. Weather is complex. Climate has never been stable. Can you name a more random set of data?”

This is what followed…

 

 

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