climate change

Nov 4, 2013

Politicians need to “pull their heads out of the sand”, and address the urgent public heath threat of climate change

Today is the deadline for submissions to the Federal Government about i

Melissa Sweet — Health journalist and <a href=Croakey co-ordinator" class="author__portrait">

Melissa Sweet

Health journalist and Croakey co-ordinator

Today is the deadline for submissions to the Federal Government about its plans to abolish the carbon tax. (This piece at The Conversation gives an overview of the Government’s plans to repeal the Clean Energy Act and shut down the Clean Energy Finance Corporation).

In the articles below:

• Dr Peter Tait, a GP and member of the Public Health Association of Australia, outlines some of the wide-ranging public health concerns raised by climate change, including the looming threat to food security; and

• Dr Brad Farrant, an adjunct research fellow at the UWA and a member of the Climate and Health Alliance, warns that our existing emission reduction target of 5% by 2020 is unethical and fiscally irresponsible.


Climate change risks undermining our capacity to feed ourselves

Dr Peter Tait writes:

The winter in Canberra has been very mild, the second warmest on record. While a warm winter does not global warming make, the three warmest over the last 100 years have been in the last ten years. Fires have been raging around the nation and several other warmest-on-record events have happened.

So, when the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment report (IPCC AR5) again tells us that the planet is warming and the cause is predominantly human greenhouse gas emissions, the temperature trends in eastern Australia should not be surprising.

The government recently released the exposure draft legislation and consultation paper on “Repeal of the Carbon Tax”. Their quick and efficient move to fulfil their election promise demonstrates how decisive and focused government can be.

They have promised to replace the tentative steps Australia had taken toward reducing carbon emissions, by a policy to instead introduce a program of “Direct Action”. This will entail paying large emitters to reduce emissions, getting carbon into soil and a creating a Green Army to plant forests and clean up waterways.

How this is to work is yet to be revealed.

Why are these two events, occurring within weeks of each other, interesting the public health community in Australia?

Firstly the IPCC AR5 outlines that Australia is going to get hotter and drier (if you live in the south and east) and hotter and wetter, if you live in the Kimberley.

The forecast is for more heat waves, more frequent and fierce fires, change in the intensity and perhaps frequency of storms, rain and floods. Adverse health outcomes, especially for the aged and infirm from these events will dwarf the minor gains from fewer cold related deaths.

More worrying, in addition to these direct weather and fire effects, will be the consequent effects on agriculture and livestock over the next 30 to 50 years.

The forecast here is less certain, but there is general agreement that despite some CO2 fertilisation effect on plant growth, the changes in rainfall patterns, heat and higher evaporation rates, effects on soil organisms, insects, birds and other animal life will diminish our ability to grow food for both domestic use and export.

Rainfall pattern forecasts suggest that flooding rains (increased intensity events) are likely to complement the drying. Our capacity to feed ourselves in the mid-term future, our food security, may well become the critical health issue toward the latter half of this century.

Consequent to this drying of the continent, there will be problems for the survival of rural towns, farms and businesses; with an expectation of mental and social and emotional health impacts for these populations as occurred in the last extended drought and rural economic downturns.

Cities will also be affected, with increased migration to urban areas compounding the need for basic essentials for human existence: clean air, water, food and shelter. This will all occur in the context of an increasing Australian population.

Australians recognise the threat, and know action is needed to minimise greenhouse gas emissions urgently. Surveys show they think that government and industry should be leading on this.

As well as minimising future warming, Australia has to insure against the risks from changes to climate and sea level rise, and plan adaption to the warming that is already underway.

So the health perspective puts prevention of these threats at the forefront of action. With the IPCC AR5 confirming the need to rapidly implement programs to achieve substantial, sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to halt warming, the Australian government needs to explain how its policy suite is going to achieve this.

Further, if international action does arise out of the Paris COP next year, and agreement to reduce emission to a level consistent with that which the science suggests is needed, in the order of 25% or more by 2030 and more rapidly thereafter, how they will plan to meet this, as their policy suggests they intend.

The health sector knows that action to reduce greenhouse emission and adapt to warming can have benefits for health.

For instance, consuming less red meat reduces risk of heart disease and colon cancer; better designed cities reduce motor vehicle use and improve opportunity for physical activity and social connectedness, and can make them cooler and more comfortable places to live.

Developing renewable non-greenhouse polluting energy sources offer exciting economic opportunities and helps the economic transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Health and emergency response planning experience tells us that rising to the challenge presented by global warming sooner rather than later will minimise the costs both economically and socially.

Planned, calm reformation of the economy will be better for people’s mental health than change driven by crisis and disasters.

All major political parties in Australia accept the IPCC report’s findings and are committed to action. 21st century governments are responsible for leading these changes.

Anyone in parliament who denies the severity of global warming and urgency of a response is not fit to be there; they are being economically, socially and environmentally irresponsible.

Therefore the public health community calls on all political parties to take a multi-partisan approach to match the urgency of this serious health threat.  We want sensible public discussion, a reliable, politically independent, cutting edge source of information to guide us.

We think an independent body such as the Climate Change Authority is needed to monitor and advise on greenhouse emission targets and trajectories. We call on all parties across all Australian governments to join together to lead us to an ecologically sustainable and economically prosperous future, and to minimise the threats to our health and wellbeing whilst maximising the opportunities to improve health from action on greenhouse gas emission control.

As the seasons keep getting warmer, we want to know that our leaders are working hard to protect our lives and livelihoods on a warming planet.

• Peter Tait, FRACGP, MClimChng, FPHAA, Ecology and Environment, Public Health Association Australia


Politicians are failing their ethical and fiduciary responsibilities

Dr Brad Farrant writes:

The draft report recently released by the Climate Change Authority (CCA) confirms that our existing emission reduction target of 5% by 2020 is unethical and fiscally irresponsible.

The CCA is headed by a widely respected group of experts including Bernie Fraser (ex-Governor of the Reserve Bank) and Professor Ian Chubb (Australia’s Chief Scientist).

The draft report presents two options for our 2020 and 2030 targets. The first involves a 15% reduction by 2020 and 35-50% by 2030. The second more ambitious option would see a 25% reduction by 2020 and 40-50% by 2030.

The report notes that the 15% by 2020 option puts off most of the required reductions until later and therefore necessitates an acceleration of effort after 2020.

After seeking and reviewing comments by interested parties, the CCA intends to recommend a single 2020 target and 2030 trajectory range in its final report, which is due to be released by the end of February.

Although both of CCA’s options involve quite large increases to the targets these are still very conservative. The CCA has chosen to use a global carbon budget that provides only a 67% chance of keeping global warming below the internationally agreed ‘safe’ target of 2 degrees Celsius.

The report also acknowledges that wealthy countries like Australia that have high levels of historical emissions have a greater responsibility to act, yet the CCA’s emission reduction targets do not take account of our historical emissions and would see Australia use an unfair amount of the remaining global carbon budget.

In contrast, the Ecofys report, which was also released recently, found that Australia is set to blow our share of the carbon budget in about 10 years. It recommended that for Australia to do its fair share our existing emission reduction targets need to be 27-34% by 2020, 82-101% by 2030 and 98-106% by 2050.

Our politicians and government officials have an ethical responsibility to protect us, our children and future generations from dangerous climate change.

The environment Minister Greg Hunt has made it very clear that the Abbott government will not be adopting the required targets.

Similarly, while saying that the report should be seriously considered by the government, the Labor party’s climate change spokesperson Mark Butler has given no indication that they will adopt the recommended targets.

By failing to adopt the emission reduction targets that the experts inform us are required to do our fair share to prevent dangerous climate change politicians in the major political parties are failing their ethical responsibilities.

Furthermore, as pointed out in the CCA report, failing to act to get our emissions under control now means that we will face massive economic costs when the rest of the world holds us accountable to do our fair share.

The government and the opposition need to pull their heads out of the sand, listen to the experts, and start acting in line with their ethical and fiduciary responsibilities.

• Dr Brad Farrant PhD, UWA Adjunct Research Fellow, ARACY child and youth representative, Climate and Health Alliance


• See here for previous Croakey coverage of climate change and public health


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