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As time runs out, a call for the health community to step up climate activism

The major political parties’ lack of engagement with the urgent warning from the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) must be countered by activism from the health community, writes Fran Baum, a professor of health equity at The Stretton Institute, The University of Adelaide.


Fran Baum writes:

The latest IPCC report says that there is a more than 50 percent chance that global temperature rise will reach or surpass 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) between 2021 and 2040 across studied scenarios, and under a high-emissions pathway, specifically, the world may hit this threshold even sooner.

In Australia this means the apocalyptic ‘Black Summer’ bushfires in southeast Australia, repeated bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, the loss of our kelp forests, heatwaves that are killing people in our cities, droughts affecting Australian farming communities and repeated flooding will continue and almost certainly get worse.

The impacts on physical and mental health are obvious.

Given the risk to our security I would have hoped our Government and Opposition would have issued a statement on the IPCC’s latest warnings and declared a climate emergency that would mean immediately halting fossil fuel developments and withdrawing any subsidies to the fossil fuel industries.

But that hasn’t happened. Yet if we see the climate emergency as more threatening than the pandemic, the lack of response is as if we’d decided not to implement COVID-19 protection measures, decided to not obtain vaccines and just let the vaccine rip through our community.

Climate change is no longer a slow burn. It is an existential threat not just to our health but to the very existence of human life on Planet Earth. There can be no more important public health issue at this point in the 21st Century.

At the same time as the timid responses to climate change through the “safeguard mechanism” (which sounds more like a guard around a domestic fire than a response to the biggest ever crisis humanity has faced) is being taken to parliament, the security we are being sold is nuclear submarines to defend against China that will arrive in 2040. By that time the security risk posed by climate change may well have wiped us all out.

If the IPCC report isn’t enough to course correct our lack of focus on the climate emergency, then why isn’t the advice from the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group, which is a bi-partisan group? They note the huge risks climate change poses to our security:

Such impacts will threaten Australia’s security in many ways, including our energy security; our export market and vital imports, which are at risk from disruption to production and supply chains; breakdown in social cohesion, and increase the potential for state failure and regional crises.” (Why We Exist – Australian Security Leaders Climate Group)

This group is no bunch of sandal wearing, bearded inner city green voters. No, their Executive comprises senior defence leaders, industry leaders who have specialised in risk assessment and defence, led by Admiral Chris Barrie – former head of our defence force.

I can only assume that the lobbying by the dying fossil fuel industry accounts for why none of the three major parties is supporting real action on climate change.

A real risk assessment of the threat of climate change would highlight the severe physical and mental health impacts including deaths from heat stress, climate change induced disasters, the increased spread of infectious disease, and eventually starvation as crops fail and water shortages as the planet heats up. Then there are the mental health impacts of the disasters, and of the knowledge of the inevitability of things getting worse if we don’t act.

The climate emergency is a public health emergency and the latest IPCC report says if we act now, we can ensure a liveable planet in the future. But as United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says, the climate time bomb is ticking and if we don’t act its explosion will devastate our world.

My message for the public health community is to get active in whatever ways you can, whether it is lobbying your political representatives, joining protest movements, civil disobedience or whatever action you can think of.

Time is running out and change has always come from activism forcing the hand of governments.


Also read: Urgent calls to fast-track climate action as new report warns of global health catastrophe

See Croakey’s archive of articles on the climate emergency and health