In the run-up to the UN Climate Change Summit #COP21 in Paris later this year, the demands for effective climate action will grow ever louder.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age are among 25 media organisations to join a new global publishers network with the aim of extending their coverage of climate change through collaboration (see stories from the SMH series “climate for change”).
“Climate change is a topic many news organisations around the world would like to cover more often, but for which they don’t necessarily have the resources,” says the Network’s blurb.
Meanwhile, following hot on the heels of the Pope’s landmark Encyclical Letter on “Care for our Common Home” comes the release today of policy recommendations from the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change.
The report is reviewed below by Mark Hayes, a final year medicine and public health student at the University of Melbourne, who is the National Climate Change and Health Campaign Co-ordinator for the Australian Medical Students’ Association.
Beneath his article is a summary of the ten recommendations, and further recommended reading.
Mark Hayes writes:
The threat to human health from climate change is so great that it could undermine many of the gains in development and global health of the last fifty years.
And yet according to the report, actions to tackle climate change could be the greatest opportunity to improve global health.
The initial 2009 Lancet report titled, Managing the health effects of climate change, labelled climate change as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”. Climate change is known to impact on health directly through increased injuries and deaths from heat stress, floods, droughts, and storms.
Beyond these, there are potentially greater indirect impacts: the spread of climate-sensitive infectious diseases; air pollution affecting respiratory diseases; food insecurity; nutritional problems; mass migration and conflict; and mental health.
However, the momentous new release, to be marked by launch events all over the globe and starting in Melbourne, provides comprehensive new evidence that actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change have significant direct and indirect positive health benefits.
Six years on from the 2009 report, the new multidisciplinary and international Commission draws on experts from a range of fields, including public health; climate science; geography; ecology; engineering; economics; political science; and public policy.
They conclude that many mitigation and adaption responses to climate change are “no regrets policies” that are possible right now, and accrue health co-benefits.
In particular, the report cites health and economic gains from reduced air pollution and transition to sustainable cities that promote healthy lifestyles. It recommends rapidly phasing out coal as part of an early and decisive policy package aimed at reducing the health burden of particulate matter and other air pollutants.
Moreover, the development of energy efficient buildings; low cost active transport; and green urban spaces will not only clean up the air we breath, but will also reduce road traffic accidents, obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke.
The report emphasises that achieving a decarbonised global economy, and the associated public health benefits, is no longer a technical or economic question, but rather it is now a political one.
In the lead up to the pivotal UN climate negotiations in Paris this December this report calls for bold political commitment.
Echoing this call for action are leading health and medical groups in Australia who have welcomed the new publication. The Nossal Institute for Global Health, Australian Medical Association (Victoria), Public Health Association of Australia (Victoria), the Australian Medical Students Association, the Climate and Health Alliance and the Melbourne Sustainable Societies Institute are cohosting a forum in Melbourne, with Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty set to launch the publication in Australia.
Australian National University, the Royal Australian College of Physicians, University of Western Australia, the Climate Council, and Adelaide University are all hosting events in the following days and months.
With the Australian government expected to release its revised emission reduction targets in mid-July, time will soon tell if our leaders will hear the calls from health professionals.
The solutions are available and effective. Health communities around the globe agree that we can, and must, act now to protect our health now and into the future.
Recommendations from the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change
The Commission recommends that over the next 5 years, governments:
1. Invest in climate change and public health research, monitoring, and surveillance to ensure a better understanding of the adaptation needs and the potential health co-benefits of climate mitigation at the local and national level.
2. Scale-up financing for climate resilient health systems world-wide. Donor countries have a responsibility to support measures which reduce the impacts of climate change on human wellbeing and support adaptation. This must enable the strengthening of health systems in low-income and middle-income countries, and reduce the environmental impact of health care.
3. Protect cardiovascular and respiratory health by ensuring a rapid phase out of coal from the global energy mix. Many of the 2200 coal-fired plants currently proposed for construction globally will damage health unless replaced with cleaner energy alternatives. As part of the transition to renewable energy, there will be a cautious transitional role for natural gas. The phase out of coal is proposed as part of an early and decisive policy package which targets air pollution from the transport, agriculture, and energy sectors, and aims to reduce the health burden of particulate matter (especially PM2.5) and short-lived climate pollutants, thus yielding immediate gains for society.
4. Encourage a transition to cities that support and promote lifestyles that are healthy for the individual and for the planet. Steps to achieve this include development of a highly energy efficient building stock; ease of low-cost active transportation; and increased access to green spaces. Such measures improve adaptive capacity, whilst also reducing urban pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, mental illness, and respiratory disease.
5. Establish the framework for a strong, predictable, and international carbon pricing mechanism.
6. Rapidly expand access to renewable energy in low-income and middle-income countries, thus providing reliable electricity for communities and health facilities; unlocking substantial economic gains; and promoting health equity. Indeed, a global development pathway that fails to achieve this expansion will come at a detriment to public health, and will not achieve long-term economic growth.
7. Support accurate quantification of the avoided burden of disease, reduced health-care costs, and enhanced economic productivity associated with climate change mitigation. These will be most effective when combined with adequate local capacity and political support to develop low-carbon healthy energy choices.
The health community has a vital part to play in accelerating progress to tackle climate change
Health professionals have worked to protect against health threats, such as tobacco, HIV/AIDS, and polio, and have often confronted powerful entrenched interests in doing so. Likewise, they must be leaders in responding to the health threat of climate change. A public health perspective has the potential to unite all actors behind a common cause—the health and wellbeing of our families, communities, and countries. These concepts are far more tangible and visceral than tonnes of atmospheric CO2, and are understood and prioritised across all populations irrespective of culture or development status.
Reducing inequities within and between countries is crucial to promoting climate change resilience and improving global health. Neither can be delivered without accompanying sustainable development that addresses key health determinants: access to safe water and clean air, food security, strong and accessible health systems, and reductions in social and economic inequity. Any prioritisation in global health must therefore place sustainable development and climate change front and centre.
8. Adopt mechanisms to facilitate collaboration between Ministries of Health and other government departments, empowering health professionals and ensuring that health and climate considerations are thoroughly integrated in government-wide strategies. A siloed approach to protecting human health from climate change will not work. This must acknowledge and seek to address the extent to which additional global environmental changes, such as deforestation, biodiversity loss, and ocean acidification, will impact on human health and decrease resilience to climate change.
9. Agree and implement an international agreement that supports countries in transitioning to a low-carbon economy. Whilst the negotiations are very complex, their goals are very simple: agree on ambitious and enforceable global mitigation targets, on adaptation of finance to protect countries’ rights to sustainable development, and on the policies and mechanisms that enable these measures. To this end, international responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is shared: interventions that reduce emissions and promote global public health must be prioritised irrespective of national boundaries.
Responding to climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.
To help drive this transition, the 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change will:
10. Develop a new, independent Countdown to 2030: Global Health and Climate Action, to provide expertise in implementing policies that mitigate climate change and promote public health, and to monitor progress over the next 15 years. The Collaboration will be led by this Commission, reporting in The Lancet every 2 years, tracking, supporting, and communicating progress and success along a range of indicators in global health and climate change
On power and politics
The Lancet Commission says that achieving a decarbonised global economy and securing the public health benefits it offers is no longer primarily a technical or economic question—but is now a political one.
Will the power exerted by the new alliances and publishers like The Lancet, Fairfax in Australia and The China Daily help to achieve political action?
As Dr Tim Senior, a GP and Croakey columnist, observes in an article in the SMH, “it’s now only a small minority of people now holding out against the evidence for action on climate change, but, sadly, they are people with money and the ear of those in power”.
As well there are plenty of powerful people who presumably do understand the issues at stake but are staying silent, as outlined in this must-read article by Ian Dunlop, who was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chairman of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is a director of Australia21 and a Member of the Club of Rome.
Dunlop describes the “deathly silence” of many business leaders in failing to challenge climate denialism:
“… not a single board chairman or CEO of a major company, bank or investment manager has spoken out against the federal government’s blatant climate denialism, and in particular, the government’s undermining of the new low-carbon industries on which Australia’s future depends. No comment on the lack of any strategic vision in the flood of Green and White papers on energy, defence, agriculture, immigration and infrastructure. All of which totally ignore the single biggest issue which should be driving policy – climate change – and the acceleration of events overseas as the fossil fuel industry fragments and global leaders begin to accept the need for emergency action.”