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Fire in the belly: collective action for environment, climate and health at HEAL 2023

Introduction by Croakey: If ever there was a time for collective action on health, the environment and climate, it is now.

The HEAL Network is a coalition that brings together Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wisdom, sustainable development, epidemiology, and data science and communication, to share knowledge, and to put that knowledge into action as we face the health challenges of environmental degradation and climate change. It’s holding its annual conference this week, with collective action in mind.

To find out what that might look like, Croakey’s Alison Barrett spoke to organisers and participants on behalf of the Croakey Conference News Service. See the program here, and on Twitter follow #HEAL2023 and this Twitter list.

 


Alison Barrett writes:

Like most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Veronica Matthews was devastated by the “emphatic rejection” of the Voice in the recent referendum.

Matthews, from the Quandamooka community at Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), and an Associate Professor at the University Centre for Rural Health at The University of Sydney, told Croakey the Voice referendum was a “real opportunity to see some transformational change in the way we do things”.

Had the Indigenous Voice to parliament been embraced, she said, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities would have experienced broad benefits from having a platform where they could share their knowledges and suggest better ways of doing things.

Such a loss is difficult to move forward from, but Matthews told Croakey, “we just have to keep the fire in the belly,” calling for genuine and respectful partnerships at a national and local level.

First Nations’ justice, rights and leadership will be among the broad range of topics discussed at this week’s annual HEAL Network Conference, of which Matthews is co-chair, with the theme, collective action for health, environment and climate.

Associate Professor Veronica Matthews

From knowledge to action

The HEAL Network’s charter is to bring together Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wisdom, sustainable development, epidemiology, and data science and communication in order to bridge the gap between knowledge and action on environmental and climate change in Australia. It’s a gap that is starkly apparent in the findings of a recent international report.

Although work on the forthcoming National Health and Climate Strategy and other national climate policies indicates the Albanese Government has climate change on their agenda, the 2023 United Nations Production Gap Report, published last week, showed that Australia’s planned fossil fuel projects are inconsistent with actions to reduce emissions and fossil fuels production.

The report found that Australia is one of ten higher-income countries that have government plans to produce coal, oil and gas exceeding the global 1.5 degree-consistent pathway. While not all are expected to materialise, a government list of major projects showed 69 coal and 49 new oil and gas projects in the pipeline.

Australia is not alone – cumulatively, governments across the world still plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.

Commenting on the report, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said:

We cannot address climate catastrophe without tackling its root cause: fossil fuel dependence. COP28 must send a clear signal that the fossil fuel age is out of gas – that its end is inevitable. We need credible commitments to ramp up renewables, phase out fossil fuels and boost energy efficiency, while ensuring a just, equitable transition.”

First Nations’ justice

In the leadup to the HEAL Network conference, Matthews told Croakey that, while it’s good we now have a government open to “listening to the science of climate change” and genuine policy commitments, it may not be “enough to reign in the consequences of climate change that we are living with now”.

“Anything we do really has to think about a decolonising process,” Matthews said. “We need to remedy what the colonial impacts have done to us, the detrimental impacts that we’ve endured,” as well as strengthen the value and appreciation of Indigenous knowledge systems and what they can bring.

The number one prescription for planetary health is justice, according to Matthews. She told Croakey that with the referendum defeat, it will be important to keep governments accountable to their international climate change and human rights obligations.

With the pending National Health and Climate policy, she said “I’m hopeful. I just hope that what they say they’ll do they’ll commit to and properly implement” … in real partnerships.

Matthews said one of the conference highlights will be the International First Nations plenary on Thursday November 16.

With a focus on rights-based approaches to climate justice, the plenary will feature “remarkable Indigenous speakers” from across the globe including Professor Sandra Creamer from the School of Public Health at University of Queensland; Associate Professor Rhys Jones from the University of Auckland; international human rights lawyer and Executive Director Water Protector Legal Collector Natali Segovia; Francis Nona, Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology’s Carumba Institute; and Joan Carling, Executive Director of the Indigenous Peoples Rights International.

See article: https://www.croakey.org/poetic-call-to-support-sovereignty-in-all-climate-and-health-work/

 

Director of the HEAL Network and conference co-chair Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis told Croakey ahead of the conference that First Nations knowledge and wisdom would continue to be the cornerstone of the Network as it always had. “For us, First Nations means First.”

He said it has been a difficult time for Aboriginal communities and researchers in the Network following the Voice referendum, but that he would like to highlight their “tenacity, resilience, diversity and their capacity to adapt to environmental change, policy change and other circumstances over thousands of years”.

Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis

Collective action

Speaking to Croakey prior to the conference, HEAL Network members Vardoulakis, Matthews, Dr Aditya Vyas and Associate Professor Fiona Charlson all agreed that a collective approach was needed for substantive action on climate change.

Vardoulakis told Croakey that one of the highlights of this year’s conference was that it would enable collective action by bringing together policymakers, researchers and health practitioners to break down siloes – “which we now realise don’t work” – and collaborate across systems.

Matthews said that collective action needs to occur at every level, with “everyone moving together in the same direction towards a healthier future and really caring for each other”.

She called for more place-based approaches done in a collective way, ensuring that adaptation strategies are led from the bottom up, relevant to local context and designed for the communities that they are directly meant to support.

This will ensure we don’t “perpetuate the inequity” that we currently see for First Nation’s communities, Matthews said.

Charlson, a psychiatric epidemiologist and health services researcher, told Croakey that, for her, collective action meant researchers from different strands coming together as well as engaging with communities more to understand what their strengths are.

Associate Professor Fiona Charlson

Charlson runs two research networks – Connecting Climate Minds Oceania, and University of Queensland’s Mental Health Climate Change Research Network – one of which in particular has a strong stakeholder engagement component.

Vyas, a public health physician and academic focusing on climate change, health system sustainability and global health governance, spent several months working with the Fiji Ministry of Health this year, including with doctors, nurses and health system managers, on their Health National Adaptation Plan (HNAP). He said this work – building partnerships and bringing in different aspects of a country’s health system – was an example of collective action.

Vyas told Croakey the health sector needs to be “climate informed” which can be considered in terms of how the health sector secures itself to respond to the impacts of climate change and/or by its efforts to scale up infrastructure or climate change specific programs including sustainability officers, better surveillance of climate sensitive diseases or health promoting approaches.

However, he acknowledged that the health system is saturated and financially constrained, making some of these actions challenging to implement. He said partnerships and collaborations strengthen “problem solving capability” that “addresses the real challenges of today and tomorrow”.

Dr Aditya Vyas

Appetite for action

“This is a time when the field of climate change and health is burgeoning,” Vyas said. “There’s increasing awareness but also an appetite for action,” whether it be at the grassroots level by individual clinical practitioners and increasing sustainability officers in health systems, or in top levels of governance.

Vyas is Deputy Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Climate Change and Health Impact Assessment at Curtin University, and inaugural fellow of the Lancet Countdown for Oceania.

Also involved in the United Nations COP28 at the end of the month, Vyas said the first-ever scheduling of a Health Day at COP showed that “health is now finally at the table, which is a really big step forward” in addressing climate change.

Vardoulakis echoed Vyas’ sentiments, telling Croakey that one of the highlights for HEAL this year is the “rapidly evolving policy landscape”. As well as being involved in the development of the National Health and Climate Strategy, the HEAL Network is collaborating with CSIRO on the first National Climate and Risk Assessment.

“These are two very important national pieces of work,” Vardoulakis said.

While unable to say much about the Strategy prior to its release, Vardoulakis told Croakey that it had a focus on implementation. “It’s not window dressing”, he said, and it has been co-designed with communities and the health sector.

As noted by Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly last week, in a speech at the National Medicines Symposium, Vardoulakis said the Strategy will not only influence action in the health sector, but also other sectors.

Charlson also agreed there was momentum for policy action on climate change. “The biggest thing that’s happening in Australia at the moment is the National Health and Climate Strategy”. There appears to be an understanding that we need to do things differently, she said.

She told Croakey the past twelve months has seen increased research in her field involving the intersections of climate change and mental health, some of which will be presented at the HEAL conference.

While the level of research has increased, Charlson said “more funding for research would be amazing”.

Health and climate season

This week’s HEAL Network conference will coincide with a multitude of other health and climate related events, including the launch of the latest Global Lancet Countdown report.

A discussion about the regional aspects raised by the Countdown report will be held on 23 November.

The conference prog