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After this budget failure, the health sector must rally to make the climate health emergency an election issue

Introduction by Croakey: The Climate Council has described the Federal Budget as “a decisive turn towards Australia’s clean energy future”.  However, many health leaders are extremely disappointed that their calls for significant investment in climate health initiatives were ignored in the budget.

The budget is a missed opportunity to address the impacts of worsening climate change on health, and represents a failure in our Government’s duty of care to protect Australians, according to Dr Kate Wylie, GP and executive director of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

“All of us working for Australians’ health cannot let this stand,” she writes below. “We have a responsibility to ensure that the climate health emergency is being properly treated, and that it is front and centre in voters’ minds at the next election.”


Kate Wylie writes:

Every day our doctors and nurses are treating people impacted by climate change; people with heat-related illness and mental health exacerbations, people impacted by fires, floods and sea-level rise, people facing food and water insecurity, all being made worse by our changing climate.

Every day there are new reports published about the astronomical health harms caused by climate change, research clearly demonstrating the impacts of global warming and the urgent need for our governments to treat the climate health emergency.

On Tuesday, Treasurer Dr Jim Chalmers handed down the 2024-25 budget and the climate health emergency is nowhere to be seen.

This is despite the release of the Government’s National Health and Climate Strategy at COP28 in December last year, which names climate change as the greatest threat to public health of the 21st century.

One must ask, what is the point of having a strategy if you are not going to back it up with budgetary support?

As a doctor, there are many times I have said to a patient that the medicine won’t work if you don’t take it; I now say to Treasurer Chalmers that the National Health and Climate Strategy won’t work if you don’t fund it.

Not one cent

Health and aged care received $146.1 billion for the 24-25 budget and not one cent was earmarked for the climate health emergency.

Last year, myself and pretty much every other health professional with even a passing interest in climate change contributed to the consultation process for the National Health and Climate Strategy. We attended roundtables and workshops, wrote submissions and articles supporting its formation and provided robust considered information that resulted in a high-level, evidence-based plan.

When Assistant Minister Ged Kearney launched the strategy at the first ever COP health day, we applauded her action, and watched with a sense of pride, gratified that we had contributed to our nation doing the right thing for the health of the people.

Perhaps Treasurer Chalmers missed the memo?

Perhaps Prime Minister Albanese failed to notice that his Government is not addressing the greatest health crisis facing humanity?

Perhaps Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler was too busy with the other demands of his portfolio to miss the elephant in the room that is climate change despite his rhetoric to the contrary when in Opposition?

This budget is a missed opportunity to address the impacts of worsening climate change on health. It represents a failure in our Government’s duty of care to protect Australians from what its own document recognises as the greatest threat to public health that we all face.

What adds insult to injury is that our Government can find money to support the ongoing expansion of gas exports.

There may be no mention of new funding for fossil fuels in this week’s budget, but last week’s Future Gas Strategy committed our country to “new sources of gas supply” despite being well aware that fossil fuels, like gas, are the primary cause of global heating and the resultant health emergency.

Gas extraction and usage itself harms health. The pollution produced is associated with a slew of health problems including cancers, lung and heart disease. Gas processing, like that proposed in the Middle Arm development, is associated with increased rates of leukaemia and neurodevelopmental problems.

Fundamentally, our Government is putting forth a gas strategy that will worsen climate change and its health harms, and is failing to support its own health strategy designed to treat them.

One hopes that Minister Butler will stand by Assistant Minister Kearney and lobby hard for this to be reconsidered for the interim budget in October.

One also hopes that our health institutions and medical colleges recall their climate health emergency declarations, and join the call for proper budgetary support for climate and health going forward. One hopes.

Some positives

There are some positive things in the budget, which could indirectly improve climate health outcomes.

The Future Made in Australia plan to power renewable energy is a forward thinking move. $23 billion over ten years for critical minerals and green hydrogen will allow the transition away from domestic use of coal and gas and sits well with the known government target of 82 percent domestic renewable energy by 2030. This means less air pollution and should be a positive step to reduce this health burden.

However, this is a highly complicated and complex area and one cannot help but be concerned about just how green this hydrogen will be. There are also concerns regarding local pollution and habitat destruction by critical minerals exploration, as well as exploitation of First Nations communities. We will have to watch and see how this plays out over the next decade.

The $227 million allocated to support Medicare Urgent Care Clinics could indirectly reduce healthcare emissions by keeping people out of our high cost, high carbon hospital system.

The $90 million to address health workforce shortages should improve patient outcomes and the health system’s capacity to treat the ever increasing onslaught of climate related health presentations.

The $100 million for active transport to build bicycle and walking paths, is (pardon the pun) a step in the right direction and will have positive benefits for cardiorespiratory, mental and social health.

But all of this is a drop in the ocean and there is little else that will address climate and health in the $146.1 billion for health and aged care.

On the face of it, the cost-of-living package should help improve patient outcomes and therefore resilience from climate health effects.

The rent assistance increases for Centrelink recipients and the tax rate changes are geared to supporting people on lower incomes but the dogged refusal to increase JobSeeker payments leaves many people struggling below the poverty line. These people will likely spend their $300 a quarter energy bill credit on food and housing, whereas this money will hardly be noticed by the well-to-do.

It is inherently inequitable that everyone receives the same amount of credit with the $3.5 billion energy rebate despite it being spruiked as an equality measure, when some are doing it so much harder than others.

Dissonance

Overall, there is a sense of internal dissonance in this year’s budget.

There are measures that may indirectly have positive impacts but there is nothing here that directly supports our health in light of the great global crisis of climate change. As stated, the Government’s own National Health and Climate Strategy clearly demonstrates that they understand that the climate crisis is a health crisis, yet they have side stepped away from their responsibility to fund it.

They are forward footing with the Future Made in Australia plan, heralding the long overdue transition to renewable energy, yet last week’s Future Gas Strategy supports fossil fuel exports directly harming the health of Australians and worsening global heating. This is a moral failing and should be roundly condemned as a great disservice to us all.

Lastly, they have put forward a cost-of-living package to ease cost of living pressures, but by giving the same energy rebate to the wealthiest as well as the poorest Australians, they do nothing to level the playing field and miss an opportunity to reduce inequality.

The budget was an opportunity to create a nation that addresses its responsibilities to reduce emissions, that provides equal opportunity for all its citizens and prepares itself for the ever increasing health threat of our changing climate.

Instead, it dances around the edges and lacks a coherent narrative to capture the heart of the Australian people. It fails to show any real leadership or vision for our ever heating future, with climate and health missing in action.

All of us working for Australians’ health cannot let this stand; we have a responsibility to ensure that the climate health emergency is being properly treated, and that it is front and centre in voters’ minds at the next election.


See Croakey’s archive of articles on the National Health and Climate Strategy