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COP27 – a missed opportunity for Australian health ministers and departments to lead on climate action

Introduction: The recent COP27 global climate meeting was an important opportunity for highlighting health and climate matters. But Australian health ministers and departments failed, yet again, to grasp the opportunity, according to a special Croakey investigation.


Alison Barrett writes:

Australian health and medical leaders have expressed surprise and disbelief at the silence from health ministers and their departments during the recent COP27 meeting, noting this was a significant and important opportunity to advance health and climate debate and policy discussions.

They were commenting on a Croakey review of media statements issued by federal, state and territory health ministers and departments during the time around COP27, which could not identify any statements addressing COP27 or health-related concerns.

The Croakey survey identified 135 media statements published by health ministers and departments between 31 October and 23 November 2022.

Only one statement – by the Western Australian Department of Health – acknowledged climate change as a public health issue.

“I am just flabbergasted there appears to have been almost radio silence around the impact of the climate emergency on health in recent months,” Laureate Professor Nick Talley said. “Climate change represents one of the greatest threats to human health this century.”

Dr Kate Wylie, Deputy Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia, told Croakey that staying silent throughout COP27 “was a missed opportunity to shift the narrative and change the nature of the debate”.

However, she acknowledged that Health Minister Mark Butler has previously voiced support for climate action and recognises climate change as a global threat to health.

“The World Health Organizations’ health pavilion at COP27 demonstrated the vital need for climate action on health grounds. That this was not addressed and appreciated by our Health Minister is a sad indictment on Minister Butler’s commitment to climate action,” Wylie added.

Fiona Cornforth, Chair of the National Health Leadership Forum, a peak body representing the views of 12 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations working in health and wellbeing, told Croakey: “It was disappointing that climate change and its impact on health by the Australian Government was not acknowledged at COP27. This lack of acknowledgement will hinder our responses to climate change.”

The review was conducted as part of Croakey’s #HealthyCOP27 series, and follows a similar review undertaken as part of last year’s #HealthyCOP26 series.

In addition, we scanned tweets by Federal, State and Territory health ministers for the same period. No tweets were identified discussing COP27 or climate change as a health issue.

Importantly, no media statements or tweets by health ministers and departments addressed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ concerns relating to COP27, climate change and health.

Interestingly, five media statements discussed health issues related to climate events (for example, Japanese encephalitis and floods) but did not mention the terms “climate” or “climate change”, nor did they specifically acknowledge the link between climate and health.

Croakey notes that Minister Butler has raised climate and health matters several times, including at the Australian Medical Association’s climate webinar and on 3 August in Parliament. Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care Ged Kearney has also spoken on climate and health matters.

Ministers for Climate Change

Given this is the first year since 2013 that Australia has had a Federal Minister for Climate Change and Energy, we also analysed media statements by Chris Bowen and Assistant Minister Jennifer McAllister during COP27.

Between them, they released 12 statements (one was a joint statement). Seven of the statements discussed COP27 discussions, with no mention of health. Two statements mentioned health in relation to energy policies and fuel quality standards.

However, one tweet, by Minister McAllister, acknowledged the importance of including First Nations’ voices at COP27 negotiations and climate policies.


Prioritising First Nations voices, knowledge and solutions

Responding to Croakey’s findings, the Climate and Health Alliance’s Roland Sapsford and Fiona Armstrong said there is “much more to do in order to go beyond the lip service of acknowledging Indigenous cultural knowledge and practice”.

They told Croakey this requires listening to, and learning from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and co-designing solutions and strategies with them.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are disproportionately impacted by the impacts of climate change, often at the front line of climate emergencies and destruction of Country.

Rikki Dank, Gudanji and Wakaya woman and board member for Gudanji for Country, told Croakey: “As First Nations people currently feeling the effects of climate change, we are acutely aware of the related impacts upon our health – climate change effects are exacerbating already significant health problems in our communities.”

Amba-Rose Atkinson, Gumbaynggirr nyami and PhD candidate at the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health research and School of Public Health at the University of Queensland, told Croakey, “in order to effectively respond to climate change and climate change-related health issues, we need First Nations perspectives in the room”.

A COP27 delegate, Dank said, “there was not a lot of talk about health at COP27 despite the attempts of many, such as ourselves, Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) and others, to draw attention to this”.

Atkinson, who also attended the meeting, said “COP27 was a sea of suits and no masks”.

Both Atkinson and Dank emphasised the deep connection Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have with Country, and that it is critical for government departments and ministers to understand this to move forward effectively on climate action.

“Importantly, the Federal Government needs to start involving First Nations communities in discussions around ‘Loss and Damage’ as we are suffering both here in Australia,” Dank said.

“We need bold climate-health policy that prioritises First Nations’ perspectives, solutions and interdisciplinary preventative health policy; the future of this continent and everyone that calls it home, depends on it,” Atkinson said.

“We need decolonisation, representation, and courageous climate-health policy.”

Recognition of past political climate inaction

Health, medical and climate leaders acknowledged that the limited public commentary on climate change as a health issue during COP27 likely “reflects the political history of the past decade,” as expressed by CAHA’s Sapsford and Armstrong.

“This seems to be a reflection of Tony Abbott still controlling the political discourse around climate change in Australia. And it’s not that he’s actively doing it, it’s just that everyone got into the habit of not talking about it,” GP and public health advocate Dr Peter Tait told Croakey.

“Climate change has been a politically controversial issue in Australia, and this appears to extend to the health impacts,” said Professor Fran Baum AO, The Stretton Institute, The University of Adelaide.

Atkinson told Croakey that “generally speaking, the siloing of climate solutions that we see in Australia can arguably be tied to the deep politicisation and policy turbulence over the past decades”.

“The reluctance for health ministers and governments to explicitly acknowledge the impact of climate change and health is a result of continued political sensitivity to those that are still resistant to change,” Cornforth told Croakey.

Some optimism

However, health and medical leaders expressed some optimism about the Labor Government’s commitment to climate action and the planned National Health and Climate Strategy.

“The national climate and health response is only just emerging in Australia under the leadership of Health Minister Mark Butler. This follows consistent and substantial advocacy from health stakeholders over several years,” Sapsford and Armstrong said.

Baum said: “There is generally little attention paid to health in energy policies – see our recent article analysing Australian energy policies (which has a model for considering the impact of energy on health) so that might explain why there has been so little attention – hopefully this will change when we get a National Climate Change and Health Policy.”

CEO of the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, Kylie Woolcock, told Croakey that “despite the perception across media, we are seeing significant activity by Federal ministers and the health department to address the health impacts of climate change. Since being elected, the Australian Government has established a National Health Sustainability and Climate Unit within the Department of Health and Aged Care and have committed to developing Australia’s first National Health and Climate Strategy.”

More work to do

Despite these positive steps, there is an urgent need for more to be done.

Wylie said she welcomed the planned National Health and Climate Strategy announced in the October Federal Budget. Currently it is focusing on emissions reduction in the health sector but should expand its scope to include a public health education campaign on the health effects of climate change, she said.

“Health ministers and health departments need to be more vocal about how climate is impacting on health and commit to educating and informing the public.”

Dr Gemma Crawford, National President of the Australian Health Promotion Association, said: “We encourage all governments to engage in conversations about climate change and to take strong action to address it – it is a public health emergency.”

DEA member Dr Richard Yin told Croakey: “Much more work needs to be done on climate change and health messaging that helps bring the public with us on this issue. It would help if ministers and health departments made comment to acknowledge the problem.”

Tait said that ministers had to be providing leadership, in making “calm, measured statements” about climate disruption, as we go through a massive change process in the next 10 years.

Kathryn Bowen, Professor of Environment, Climate and Global Health at The University of Melbourne, who attended COP27, said the WHO pavilion was well attended but “although the nationally determined contributions are starting to include more health issues, we’re not seeing the flow on in terms of what ministries of health are actually doing, or what ministries of environment are doing around climate and health”.

Silos and limited capacity

Health and medical leaders strongly recommended a multisectoral approach.

Susie Moloney, Executive Director of the Centre for Just Places at Jesuit Social Services, told Croakey: “Policy responses to climate change are siloed in Australia. Responding to climate change is largely held within environmental departments, often neglecting and siloing the intersecting social, economic and health inequities that make certain regions and communities more vulnerable to a changing climate, with fewer resources to cope and adapt.”

Bowen said: “We’re set up in silos and so we see climate as an additional silo to work on which isn’t a constructive way to view risk.”

Baum said: “Running a health and health equity impact assessment lens over the relevant departments (urban planning, transport, environment, climate change, food production) and assessing whether they have the policy recognition of the link between climate change and health – especially as, aside from climate change, the damage done to health by air pollution is massive, so cleaning our air needs to be an issue for these departments too.”

Former senior public servant Charles Maskell-Knight told Croakey: “Reasons for the minimal action and public commentary by health ministers and departments on climate change may be for a few reasons: the departments have no spare capacity or resources to deviate from their portfolio’s main tasks. Ministers may be reluctant to be heard saying things that aren’t inside their portfolio – there is a tendency for ministers to stick to their own railway tracks.”

Similarly, Adjunct Associate Professor Lesley Russell said that there is “no-one within the bureaucracies they oversee who has responsibility for this issue, so it never makes it into briefing notes, future scoping, priorities for action”.

Woolcock advised Croakey that inter-departmental working groups are being established “for a whole-of-department approach and to address cross-portfolio policy issues”.

However, the Climate and Health Alliance said more cross portfolio collaboration is needed to ensure climate and energy policies also reduce risks to health and actively promote positive health outcomes, for all people and all populations.

Transition from fossil fuels

Some health and medical leaders interviewed for this article also emphasised the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels, towards renewables and mitigation.

“We are past the point where we can debate the relative importance of adaptation and mitigation – both are critically important now,” Sapsford and Armstrong said.

Yin suggested that the proposed Centre for Disease Control could play a significant role in prioritising climate change as a public health issue – “the CDC provides a real opportunity to embed public health and surveillance and management of environmental threats into the structure of healthcare”.

*Note, Croakey received more responses to our review of media statements during COP27 than could be reported here, highlighting the critical importance of this issue. Read the full responses here.

Health Minister Butler’s response

The Minister’s office provided this statement: “After nearly a decade of climate denial and inaction the Albanese Government is committed to providing national leadership on climate change.

“It has long been Labor Party policy to put in place at the national level, a focused climate and health strategy.

“The Albanese Government recognises the impacts of climate change on health and the contribution of the health system to climate change.

“We need to make sure that the health system is able to deal with the climate impacts that we know are already baked into the system, and the challenge of reducing the carbon footprint of the health sector itself.

“Work is already underway to develop Australia’s first National Climate Health Strategy.”

The Minister spoke at the Australian Medical Association’s Climate Webinar; Greening the Healthcare Sector Forum; On August 3 in Parliament; Minister Kearney in November, statement published 13 December 2022; The Minister at the Population Health Congress; Health Budget release. The Minister has also spoken about this in Parliament.

Other responses

The findings and questions were also sent to Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen. At the time of publication, no response had been received.

We also sent our findings to all state and territory health ministers and departments. Responses were received from NSW Health, Victorian Department of Health, and Ministers Rachel Stephen-Smith (ACT), Chris Picton (SA), Yvette D’Ath (Queensland) and Natasha Fyles (NT). Read the full responses here.


Bookmark this link to follow the #HealthyCOP27 series.
On Twitter follow #HealthyCOP27 and also this Twitter list.

We acknowledge and thank the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation for funding the #HealthyCOP27 series, and Adjunct Professor Janine Mohamed and the Lowitja Institute for partnering with Croakey Health Media on the project.

 

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