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Oct 22, 2013

Carbon tax repeal: Time for health sector to speak up on climate change

The Federal Government has vowed to abolish the carbon tax from 1 July 2014, and has asked for public comment of its newly released

The Federal Government has vowed to abolish the carbon tax from 1 July 2014, and has asked for public comment of its newly released carbon tax repeal bills.

Croakey has also asked its contributors what they think about the following questions:

  • What are the health implications of these bills?
  • How would you like to see them modified?
  • Any thoughts for how the wider health sector should respond?
  • Any other comments?

While the carbon tax may have been flawed, there is little hope from contributors in the Government’s Direct Action policy. The tax’s repeal, says Fiona Armstrong from the Climate and Health Alliance, heralds a step into a ‘second Dark Age’ of denial and self-deception and is a stark ‘reminder of the disconnect between science and policy’.

One contributor argues there are no health policy implications of the bills per se, but a number see the repeal of the tax as a call to arms to the health sector to talk more and more strongly about the health impacts of climate change.

GP Tim Senior (who is tweeting this week at @wepublichealth) notes he is seeing more patients presenting with health issues related to extreme or unpredictable weather, such as pain and respiratory problems, but also issues with their housing or in being confined to home. Professor Gawaine Powell Davies suggests lining up with the health insurance industry on the risks and impacts: ‘they’re very good at doing the sums’.

Contributors are also concerned about likely disproportionate impact of climate change on Indigenous Australians in rural and remote regions, and on Australia’s developing neighbours, and interested in the implications of a proposed policing role for the Australian Competition and Consumer Council (ACCC) on electricity prices post-repeal.

See their full responses below.

The Government is encouraging submissions on the exposure drafts of the carbon tax repeal bills by 29 October 2013, with the final date being Monday 4 November. Full details are here:


Fiona Armstrong, Climate and Health Alliance

The legislation to repeal the carbon price is another reminder of the disconnect between science and policy in Australia. So much policy is driven by corporate interests, with the impacts on people’s health wellbeing often a secondary consideration. In this case, the impacts on people are being completely ignored, with the glaring horror of climate change writ large as the New South Wales bushfires destroy homes, livelihoods and biodiversity while the New South Wales Government rolls back climate research programs. The Federal Government contribution is to abolish the Climate Commission, dismantle the Climate Change Authority, and remove the only current national disincentive to greenhouse gas emissions.

Authors Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway write presciently in their recent paper: The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A view from the future on the emergence of the second ‘Dark Age’ in which “denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on ‘free’ markets, disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy”.

The new Federal Government is a strong example of this denial and self-deception and what others call “wilful ignorance”. Mr Abbott will have to live with the consequences of his actions, as will we, but most significantly, these actions serve to rob our children and future generations of the chance to avoid a wildly unstable climate and irrecoverably degraded ecosystems. The denial and self deception being engaged in by our political leaders, encouraged by the cheer squad of corporate vested interests, may well one day be seen as acts of criminality – since the decisions being taken so flagrantly disregard widely available scientific evidence of the consequences of doing so.

This is little comfort to those of us willing to take a clear eyed look at the future, and see an unfolding, but predicted, tragedy. The health sector and the community more broadly are ill prepared for what lies ahead. It is my hope however that the health and medical community will bring its voice more strongly to this debate both in Australia and internationally, as there are few health risks in our history, or in our future, that pose the profound risk to health and wellbeing that we now face from climate change.


Robert Wells, Sax Institute

The message is we need to have health systems on a ‘climate change footing’ now.


Tim Senior, GP working in Aboriginal health

I write from Darwin with bush fires burning back home (in New South Wales). Reading about the repeal of the carbon tax with no effective measures to reduce carbon emissions in its place just makes my heart sink.

Part of me thinks that we should all print off the (repeal) bills and frame them, as they will be unique – the only bills to repeal action against climate change ever suggested in any country now or in the future (I hope).

I’m not an expert in legislation or the mechanisms, so I can’t really comment on that. However, in response to the questions:

What are the health implications of these bills?

The health implications come from the failure to reduce carbon emissions. I don’t know that there are specific health effects from the mechanism by which this is done. Worryingly, there appears to be no replacement plan that will be effective in reducing emissions.

How would you like to see them modified?

My understanding is that a cap and trade emissions reduction scheme is still regarded as the most efficient and we should move to this. Given this is very unlikely, there should be a clear plan as to what will be put in place of the carbon tax. Everyone apart from the government seems to be saying that Direct Action will be either very expensive or very ineffective (or both!). Perhaps we need a (quick) Senate inquiry to convince the Government.

Any thoughts for how the wider health sector should respond?

The health sector needs to be much more effective in talking about climate change as a health issue, in ways that will connect with people. We know the health effects of heatwaves, there is good evidence about the effects of disasters such as cyclones, floods and bushfires, and we can expect more of these. I have noticed that health related to weather extremes and unseasonal or unpredictable weather is coming up more and more often in my consultations, often with effects on pain or respiratory symptoms, but also keeping people in their house, or even needing housing modifications to protect from weather effects. We need to be talking loud and often about this, and what we need to do about it.

Any other comments you may have?

I was struck by the sections relating to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). It looks like, having made wild claims in Opposition about the economic effects of the carbon tax and the effects on costs of living, and continuing to make claims about families saving $550 per year after abolition, that they are trying to legislate to ensure this comes true. I wonder if the Government knows about the internal and external reports suggesting that electricity prices will rise with the abolition of the carbon tax and that recent price rises have had very little to do with the tax. This puts a threat of ACCC investigation over the electricity companies when their prices continue to rise for other reasons.

I’d also like to see statements on where the funding will come from for the rural fire services, for the clean-up exercises after disasters, for the ongoing rebuilding of towns and communities, for the increased health needs after these events, for the repair of roads and rails in heat, for the lost productivity as people sit in traffic jams when roads are closed and the cancelled and delayed trains, for the increased cost of living from food prices, water scarcity and insurance rises. We know from the Stern and Garnaut reports that these costs will vastly outweigh what we pay with a price on carbon.


Professor Jill White, University of Sydney

The health implications are enormous and relate to Australia as well as obviously to the direct health effects of rising sea levels on Pacific Islands and Delta areas. Dengue fever is creeping south and this will be exacerbated with warming, as will the mental health and physical health effects of changes in agriculture production. I cannot separate carbon pricing from warming as for me they are inextricably linked.   

Clive Aspin, public health researcher

A leak from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has indicated that Indigenous people are likely to be disproportionately affected by climate change. This piece of news was reported in The Guardian last week but seems to have attracted little interest elsewhere. I note that the report is due to be made public next March which means that precious time will be lost in developing strategies to deal with this issue.

Evidence would seem to suggest that Indigenous people living in rural and remote locations will be hit the hardest. Those who live in coastal communities can expect to be affected by rising tides and more frequent and stronger storms. And these are likely to impact on the ability of people to hunt and fish. Housing is also expected to be profoundly affected by the events caused by climate change.

This is yet one more example of Indigenous health and well-being being rendered invisible and marginalised.

The Government intends to repeal carbon pricing despite the potentially negative impact on Indigenous communities – and health disparities will become even more entrenched than they already are.


Vern Hughes, consumer health advocate

Advocates of public health undermine their cause by trying to link it with every other policy debate, in a constant search for ‘relevance’. The carbon tax repeal bills have nothing to do with health policy. They should be assessed solely in terms of their potential impact on reducing carbon emissions.

The Abbott Government will not be influenced in its health policy thinking by attempted linkages like this. It will be influenced in its health policy thinking by one thing and one thing only – the level of organised consumer-driven activity for a redesigned health system that is oriented to illness prevention and holistic integrated care. If the level of organised consumer-driven activity remains low, then the Abbott Government will continue with the provider-driven status quo in health policy. If the level of consumer-driven activity is increased in a strategic manner, then there is chance of moving away from the current provider-centred paradigm. But either way, the carbon tax repeal bills will not be factors.


Associate Professor Gawaine Powell Davies, CEO, Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity, University of NSW

The health effects of climate change are clear, as is the contribution of carbon in the atmosphere to climate change. Although the ambitions for carbon reduction have been pitifully small, they have been steps in the right direction. Removing the carbon tax and replacing it either with nothing or with an ineffective series of payments to industry creates another psychological barrier to effective action once political opinion changes.
The health sector should unequivocally name climate change when they talk about health risks, and take the same stand on evidence-based policy as they do on any other public health issue. We should include climate change as a factor in service planning as well as public health.
We should talk with the health insurance industry about this: they are very good at doing the sums.

Margo Saunders, public health policy 

This is a sorry example of the communications disasters of the last Government. As soon as an initiative designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions becomes a ‘tax’, you’re on the back foot. Personally, I’d like to imprint the collected works of James Hansen onto the brains of every Australian politician.


Heath Kelly, Professor (Adjunct) in Infectious Diseases Epidemiology, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University

We are no longer at the stage of potentially preventing global warming, but are now realistically only able to attempt prevention of the worst aspects of the consequences of a warmer world with more unpredictable extreme weather events.

Repealing the carbon tax, which in any event was only meant to be an interim measure to address climate change, is good policy if there is an alternative potentially effective amelioration measure in its place. That does not appear to be the case in Australia.

While the immediate consequences for human health in rich countries like our own will not be drastic, we cannot be sanguine about the consequences in many of our near neighbours. The long term consequences for health are uncertain for all of us.


Ben Harris Roxas, public health policy consultant

There are some unusual provisions that give new powers to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission:

“The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) will have new powers to monitor prices and take action against businesses that attempt to exploit other businesses and consumers by charging unreasonably high prices or making false or misleading claims about the effect of the carbon tax repeal on prices.”

It’s a little hard to figure out how these new powers will be used based on the draft legislation. I imagine they could have some unforeseen impacts.


Further reading:

October 23 event in Melbourne:

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