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A damning silence from Australian health ministers and departments on COP26

Croakey is closed for summer holidays and will resume publishing in the week of 10 January 2022. In the meantime, we are re-publishing some of our top articles from 2021.

This article was first published on Wednesday, November 17, 2021


Introduction by Croakey: Australian health ministers and health departments failed spectacularly to engage with COP26 as an important event for health, a new survey has found.

While there were more fossil fuel lobbyists at COP26 than health representatives, advocates for a healthy climate are already marshalling their energies for COP27, as Remy Shergill reports below in her final article for our #HealthyCOP26 series.


Remy Shergill writes:

As COP26 participants conducted exhaustive, lengthy negotiations regarding the global climate emergency, in Australia health ministers and their departments were unified in their silence on this critical public health crisis.

A survey of media statements issued by health ministers and health departments in Australia during the period around COP26 could not identify a single statement on COP26 or health-related concerns.

The survey was undertaken as part of the #HealthyCOP26 series, being published in partnership with Croakey Health Media and the Climate and Health Alliance. It identified 331 media statements issued by health departments and ministers between 25 October and 15 November.

Not one statement addressed the COP26 negotiations or climate change as a health issue – despite intense advocacy by the health sector in the lead up to COP26.

The silence contrasts with the prominence of health at COP26, where more than 60 formal climate-health sessions took place, including discussions of the current effects of climate change on health.

The silence was despite the UK COP26 Presidency appealing directly to Australia’s federal and state health departments for climate action through the COP26 Health Programme. Seven states and territory health ministries did participate in the Roundtable (the federal government and Tasmania were absent) but none made commitments to participate in COP26.

Disappointing

“With over 50 countries committing to climate adaptation and resilience through the COP26 Health Programme, Australia’s health ministries are conspicuous by their absence as one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world,” said Fiona Armstrong, executive director of Australia’s Climate and Health Alliance. “It is most disappointing.”

Armstrong said this COP was an opportunity for Australia’s health departments to demonstrate leadership on the world stage, and commit to protect health through adaptation and support Australia’s healthcare system to decarbonise.

“This is a space in which the states and territories can show leadership, with climate and health focussed adaptation plans already in place in Queensland, and in development in Victoria,” she said.

At critical moments, mainstream media reinforced the silence. For example, the Insiders program on ABC TV did not ask Health Minister Greg Hunt about health and climate matters when he gave a lengthy interview on the program on 14 November, when COP26 was headline news.

Yet there were clear questions to ask about Australia’s failures to implement a national strategy for climate, health and wellbeing, and to join other countries in committing to develop climate-resilient and/or low carbon, sustainable health systems. At COP26, 14 countries committed to develop net zero health systems, setting targets ranging from 2035 to 2050. This would have been an obvious question for the Health Minister.

“From our Federal Government, there remains very little recognition of the health impacts of climate change,” said Armstrong.

Yesterday’s announcement of $10 million from the Federal Government to fund research into climate-health impacts in Australia is an important step forward, but needs to be backed up by policy and ambition.”

A personal example of climate affecting health

Back in December 2019, when I attended COP 25 in Madrid, the Australian bushfires had been raging for months and still had months left to go. Like other Australian attendees, I was deeply distressed by the fires.

But former Vice President Al Gore put them in stark perspective when he presented literally hundreds of images of extreme weather events from the preceding year.

The Australian bushfires took up just 20 seconds of his 40-minute presentation, between other storms, cyclones, landslides, floods, polar snaps, famines, epidemics and heatwaves.

In the end, confusion, eco-anxiety and other mental health challenges got the better of me in Madrid. I felt bombarded with information about the problem and saw a total lack of inaction from governments. The negative effects of government inaction on mental health has since been rigorously proven, and is affecting thousands of young people around the world.

I feel better after COP26 in Glasgow than I did after COP25 in Madrid, but it’s a low bar. Global leaders fell short of what’s needed to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change.

The biggest output from COP26 is the Glasgow Climate Pact. What does it say?

The world is aiming for 1.5 degrees

One of conference’s major goals, as stated by the host UK Government, was to “keep 1.5 alive”. For this, the Pact is seen as a win. The Pact confirms that countries are pursuing efforts to limit the temperature rise to 1.5°C, which requires “reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid-century, as well as deep reductions in other greenhouse gases.”

“The commitment to limiting warming to 1.5°C rang clear throughout negotiations,” I was told by Jess Beagley, policy analyst at the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA). “[But] broad commitments to 1.5°C were not supported by sufficiently detailed measures to make them a reality.”

Fossil fuels implicated for the first time

The Pact also explicitly references coal and fossil fuel subsidies. It’s the first time a COP document has mentioned fossil fuels.

“The explicit naming of coal and of fossil fuel subsidies is momentous – highlighting the roots of the climate crisis rather than burying this,” said Beagley.

The Paris rulebook is finalised

Finishing the “rulebook” for the Paris Agreement has taken six years of negotiation, but it’s finally done, another major win for COP26.

“With the Rulebook now finalised, there is one less excuse for lack of coordinated action to finally deliver on the goal of the Paris Agreement to limit warming to well below 2°C and preferably to 1.5°C,” said Beagley.

This was the conference’s biggest win, I was told by Patricia Nayne Schwerdtle, climate change and health researcher with Monash University, the Heidelberg Institute of Global Health and Médecins Sans Frontières.

“The rulebook enables increased transparency with regard to emissions monitoring and reporting and provides rules on the global CO2 market,” she said. “A functional global emissions market would be a game changer for climate action and the rulebook is a step towards that.”

Focus on health

“Climate change as a health issue was dramatically more present at COP26 than ever before,” Professor Ed Maibach told me. Maibach is Director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication which hosts the US Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health.

Health was a big topic of conversation at COP26, with 51 national governments making pledges to decarbonise their healthcare systems, 60 climate-health sessions hosted by the World Health Organization during the conference, and the open letter signed by more than 600 health organisations.

Maibach believes the letter represents the “largest ever act of health advocacy in human history”.

This new focus did not result in more emphasis on health in the Pact, though it recognises the right to health (as does the Paris Agreement).

“Several countries supported including language on health co-benefits alongside the right to health,” said Beagley. “This in itself represents a significant step forward and will be something that GCHA seeks to build on together with partners in future.”

Language watered down

In the final hours, the text on coal and fossil fuels was weakened, from “phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels” to “phasing down of unabated coal and ending inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.

Many agreed this was the biggest disappointment of the conference. Nayna Schwerdtle told me, “Fossil fuel subsidies are a direct and measurable risk for public health – worsening global heating, and contributing to air pollution.”

In the ensuing media coverage, India has copped a lot of the blame for leading the charge.

But this narrative downplays the role of developed countries in this outcome. Brandon Wu from ActionAid USA puts it best in this Twitter thread (see the first tweet below).

At the same time, rich countries rejected proposal after proposal on loss and damage (a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate ChangeU term referring to the support for developing countries to cope with forthcoming and inevitable climate change-related events).

For instance, the G77 and China backed a proposal by the Alliance of Small Island States to set up a facility to receive funding for loss and damage. It didn’t end well. “Loss and damage went from a technical facility to a dialogue on what is needed for loss and damage, with no time bound elements, expected deliverables or finance to be seen,” said Fiona Armstrong, director of the Climate and Health Alliance.

Trust between developed and developing countries was already strained. At COP15, wealthy countries promised $100 billion annually by COP26 to help poorer countries adapt to and mitigate climate change. This hasn’t happened, and there is no formal plan to get it done.

“There’s been a trust deficit between rich countries and poor countries over this money that’s been promised for years,” the BBC was told by Gavan McFadzean, Climate Change Program Manager at the Australian Conservation Foundation. “[Developing countries] want to see more assurances in the text that the money will be forthcoming.”

In the most grave position of all are the small island nations, and it showed in the negotiations.

McFadzean reflected that, “It was interesting to see some of the Pacific Island nations depart a bit from the G77 [on loss and damage], to go ‘We want the money but we need mitigation… No amount of money will protect us from rising sea levels’… The very future of those island states is at stake right now.”

“Absurd” fossil fuel presence

“The most profound failures of COP26 relate to the repeated prioritisation of short-term economic interests over real action on climate change and protecting the most vulnerable,” said Beagley.

Without a doubt, the fossil fuel industry is focusing on its short-term economic interests. One hundred fossil fuel companies sent more than 500 lobbyists to the conference. One activist described it as “absurd as Alcoholics Anonymous having a global conference, and the largest delegation is the alcohol industry”.

This means fossil fuel representatives greatly outnumbered health representatives.

Maibach praised health professionals’ ability to make allies with national delegations and other advocates for women’s and Indigenous rights, and loss and damage. “We are more powerful with them, and they with us, which is important because the fossil fuel lobby is the most powerful of all – and must be overcome.”

Always pushing forward

Nayna Schwerdtle said that towards the end of the conference, in response to demand, a large room was opened for people who felt silenced, to speak publicly.

Each young person ended with a message to decision makers: ‘The science has done its job – now it is your turn’.

This quote contradicts the Prime Minister’s COP26 statement that scientists, not politicians, will solve climate change.

The Australian Youth for International Climate Engagement working group aims to overcome this gap between young people and our political leaders.

“We will continue to work towards bridging the gap between Australian youth and government to ensure youth voices are represented in the international climate space,” said Taylor Hawkins, AYFICE member and first-time COP attendee.

Many disagree with me, but I don’t believe in declaring COPs a success or a failure because it’s hard to understand the wins, the losses and their long-term future effects.

I do believe the energy of people working for climate action will endure, as it has for decades. COP26 delegates are already looking ahead to achieve more positive change at COP27.

“The Global Climate and Health Alliance will work with partners to ensure that health is better recognised as an argument for accelerated action on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage,” said Beagley.

“The US Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health will advocate for equitable health and climate policies and programs by all levels of government in the US,” said Maibach.

Nayna Schwerdtle’s research group will continue to investigate climate-health effects and solutions. “I’m also doing research on integrating climate change and health into the health professional curriculum, so the next generation of health professionals will graduate with a higher level of climate literacy, which will be good news for both human and planetary health.”

And at the Climate and Health Alliance, we will be working with our organisational members and supporters to get our Healthy, Regenerative and Just framework for a national strategy on climate, health and wellbeing in focus at the next federal election. You can help – send it to your MP now.

Perhaps you could also suggest to your local health minister and health department that they actively engage with COP27. Their silence is untenable.

• Croakey’s Melissa Sweet assisted with the survey.


This article is part of the #HealthyCOP26 series, which is being published in partnership with the Climate and Health Alliance, where Remy Shergill is campaigns and communications officer.

Photo/Image by Mitchell Ward