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As Australia braces for summer, health sector urged to take strong stand against governments’ support for fossil fuels

Introduction by Croakey:Devastating fires, catastrophic floods, extreme heatwaves, and prolonged droughts. Climate change is not a distant threat – it’s happening now, impacting lives and ecosystems. Let’s come together, reduce emissions, promote resilience, and forge a sustainable path forward. Our planet and future generations depend on it.”

So tweeted the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on 21 August. The very next day he shared photographs of himself with Sultan Al-Jaber, chief executive of the United Arab Emirates’ state oil company, who will be President of the forthcoming COP28 climate meeting, where a day will be dedicated to climate and health discussions.

The Guardian has previously reported a French MP, Manon Aubry, as saying that having an oil and gas company closely involved with the organisation in charge of coordinating the phasing out of oil and gas “is like having a tobacco multinational overseeing the internal work of the World Health Organization”.

All in all, it’s a reminder of the cognitive dissonance that so many are experiencing. As the world boils, a new report shows that G20 countries poured record levels of public money into fossil fuels last year. In Australia, federal, state and territory governments are continuing to subsidise the industry and approve new coal and gas developments.

According to a recent analysis by public health expert Professor Peter Sainsbury, despite a five percent reduction in fossil fuels’ share of the total energy pie between 2000 and 2022, the amounts of fossil fuels burnt and greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere increased by over 40 percent during that period.

In times like these, the health sector has a collective responsibility to take a strong stand, according to Dr Richard Yin, a recently retired GP and deputy chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

He urges readers to sign a petition from the World Organization of Family Doctors (WONCA) urging all governments to stop fossil fuel subsidies and expansion of the industry.


Richard Yin writes:

Earlier this month, I was part of a delegation of over 50 health professionals in Canberra to protest against both Federal and NT Government support for fracking in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin. We were backed by another 2,300 of our colleagues who signed an open letter to the Prime Minister opposing the project.

It was an unusual action from a conservative profession, and highlights a deep and growing concern within the health sector as we prepare to meet a climate-fuelled health crisis.

The evidence that the Albanese Government is supporting gas expansion is clear. This includes $1.5 billion in subsidies for the Middle Arm Precinct situated on Darwin Harbour, a key enabler of the Beetaloo gas supply chain.

In addition, recent legislation introduced to Parliament by Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, will allow companies to export their carbon dioxide and store it in international water, a process known as subsea carbon capture and storage (CCS). The bill has passed the lower house with no details as to how the process will be overseen or regulated and despite CCS remaining unproven technology. It will conveniently enable the Santos Barossa offshore project, where a CCS is required to meet its offset requirements under the Safeguard Mechanism.

But support for gas expansion is not just at a federal level.

WA Premier Roger Cook’s welcome of Woodside’s strategic partnership with LNG Japan says a lot about his Government’s priorities. It follows Perth MP, Patrick Gorman’s, recent comments on ABC’s Q+A, that Labor would have no problems with Woodside’s Burrup Hub gas extension should it “stack up environmentally”.

Well, it does not: The massive gas project will be the most polluting fossil fuel development in Australia and release around 10 years of  Australia’s annual emissions.

Ignoring science

The Labor conference in Brisbane this week has also confirmed that the party has little appetite to curtail fossil fuel expansion with unions focused on securing more investments in the energy transition.

Amidst the politics, science continues to be ignored. The IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report highlights that new gas projects are incompatible with limiting warming to 1.5°C.

As the health sector, which accounts for seven percent of Australia’s emissions, commits to urgently decarbonise and prepare the country for climate change and health impacts through the National Health and Climate Strategy, the decision to greenlight gas projects like the Beetaloo Basin and the Burrup Hub undermines our efforts to protect our communities.

Global heating requires our urgent attention. Like COVID, this is a public health emergency, and the signs are everywhere that the threat is escalating, exactly as climate scientists have predicted.

The northern hemisphere summer has seen record heatwaves across several continents. Wildfires continue to burn in Canada and Spain. Numerous global land, ocean and Antarctica climate records have been broken and the prediction is for more to fall.

The health impacts are profound. Almost 62,000 people died in last year’s European summer heatwave, a number likely to be surpassed this year.

We have seen catastrophic flooding recently in China and Slovenia. Images from the wildfires in Hawaii, where at least 114 deaths have been reported , serve as a grim reminder of our Black Summer fires and what lies ahead. The increased risk of an El Niño event this summer underscores our concerns for repeated threats from natural disasters.

There are limits to adaptation measures in the face of cascading disasters and concurrent extreme weather occurring with increasing frequency. Or in the face of an increasing burden of climate-related mental health problems. Or with temperature projections where parts of northern Australia may become unliveable.

Climate tipping points, abrupt and irreversible climate change, are a real threat as the late Will Steffen and others have highlighted and the risk of these happening only increases with more warming.

Take a stand

Ongoing government support for fossil fuel projects harms the health and wellbeing of communities. The health sector collectively needs to take a stand.

The World Organization of Family Doctors (WONCA) calls upon all health professionals to take urgent action to safeguard the health of global populations from the climate crisis, urging all governments to adopt the following as health interventions:

  • End expansion of any new fossil fuel infrastructure and production.
  • Phase out existing production and use of fossil fuels.
  • Remove fossil fuel subsidies and invest in renewable energy.
  • Fast track a just transition that addresses the needs of individuals, communities and countries to move away from fossil fuel energy systems towards more diverse, resilient and inclusive economies powered by renewable energy.

You can support the action by signing the petition here. Ask your medical college or health organisation to also support the call. The Climate and Health Alliance and Doctors for the Environment Australia have already signed it, and hopefully others will soon too.

Facing COP28

As we approach COP28, the health voice needs to be united on the need for urgent mitigation efforts both outside of and within the health sector.

With an official Health Day at COP we have an opportunity to elevate our voice. At a minimum, we need to urge our Health Minister Mark Butler to attend and for Australia to join WHO’s Alliance for Transformative Action on Climate and Health (ATACH) and engage across the working groups to collectively drive change globally.

Health ministerial meetings can advocate for health to be a more central focus with international climate policy making.

Importantly, the undue influence of the fossil fuel corporate lobbyists needs to be addressed. Last year’s COP saw over 600 fossil fuel lobbyists. This year the conference will even be presided by the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

At the very least, lobbyists should be required to submit an audited corporate political influencing statement that discloses their climate-related lobbying and funding.

As we ask of others to embrace change and disruption, it requires us as a sector to also go beyond “business-as-usual”.

As we did in the tobacco campaign, we need to confront an industry determined to sell their product of harm. We must use our influence, voice and power to ensure communities and governments accept the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels, end subsidies and to stop any expansion of the industry.

Just as no sensible politician would want to be seen as an ally of the tobacco industry, we must reveal the fossil fuel industry to be equally toxic and having outlived its social license.

Dr Richard Yin is a recently retired GP and deputy chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia.


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