Introduction: As consultations continue on development of a National Health and Climate Strategy, it is important to think beyond health services and systems. The Department of Health and Aged Care’s consultation paper has a gaping hole where there should be some serious discussion about phasing out fossil fuels, as we reported recently.
Another elephant in the room, suggests Emeritus Professor David Shearman, is the lack of acknowledgement of how current economic systems are driving both climate change and planetary systems collapse. He writes that “the growth economy is incompatible with global environmental and social sustainability”.
And just a reminder: you have until 24 July to provide feedback to contribute to this National Health and Climate Strategy consultation.
David Shearman writes:
In the past 20 years there have been several impenetrable barriers to the control of climate change, environmental degradation and related threats. These barriers reside in our own thinking.
In 2002 the British Medical Journal published a lengthy article ‘Time and Tide Wait for no Man’ on the growing threats to humanity and particularly climate change with its implications for human health. Attempts to have the article published in Australia, including in medical media had been unsuccessful. Climate change was not deemed a health issue.
The preamble stated: “Humanity is making little progress in solving the global issues of war, famine, poverty, environmental destruction, population overload, and climate change that increasingly threaten its wellbeing, health, and survival. The national and international responses to all these major problems are totally inadequate.”
In the 20 years since there has been little progress and today world emissions continue to rise; the only significant falls in the yearly figures have been caused by the United States recession of 2007-2009 and the 2020 COVID-19 crisis. Both reduced our profligate consumption.
Unless Australia reduces its energy consumption – caused by continued economic growth – it will be almost impossible for renewable energy to replace fossil fuels by 2050.
Data on polar warming, increased sea temperatures and the extent of recent wild fires have hundreds of scientists deeply concerned about tipping points.
Barriers to action
In 2002 our inabilities to make progress in addressing global warming were defined as Darwinian, psychological and ideological. Today they remain.
Darwinian mechanisms relate to human inability to think long term which the community has come to understand but still fails to address with any degree of decisiveness.
Psychological mechanisms relate to the enormity of the problem which we downplay with various forms of denial.
Today the overt denial is easily dismissed but we are faced with governments and corporate empires saying “yes, yes we do understand’’, while proceeding as usual. This is the ‘soft denial’ referred to by Julian Cribb. This is a betrayal by many governments including ours who continue fossil fuel mining with subsidies, and show little urgency to stop environmental damage.
Ideological mechanisms which have embraced much of Western civilisation now represent the most crucial barrier to our future. These relate to the conquest of rational thinking by the free market system under neo-liberalism and its strategy of corporatisation.
Today the PwC imbroglio has to be seen as no more as a grain of sand on the beach of our destruction; a beach polluted by millions of other grains of toxic economic plastic which now infiltrate every living organism – and the Western brain.
In 1980, Reagan and Thatcher drove the free market system to increasingly dominate the governance and organisation of society. In this system steady growth of the world’s economy failed to ameliorate poverty and environmental problems.
Today this capture has progressed greatly and a legion of scientists and some economists working on global environmental problems recognise that the growth economy is incompatible with global environmental and social sustainability. Its proponents police it with international rules, infiltration and replacement of the public service, media influence, and corporate power.
The recent Earth Commission Report details the planetary boundaries beyond which we must not go without destabilising life on this planet. In addition to climate change the boundaries are aerosol pollution, fresh water usage, nutrient cycles, biodiversity and land use. Most are already breached and a temperature rise of 1.5 is likely to be breached soon.
Ranged against the need to observe the planetary boundaries is a rapidly progressing process of state capture where government policy and process have been usurped by infiltration and corruption by profit-eyed powerful commercial interests. Economists still extol economic growth by measuring GDP a significant proportion of which reflects consumption of environmental resources.
The COVID epidemic brought realisation that capitalism-based budgets had caused the demise of health services, aged care, social housing, university and school teaching in Australia, USA, Canada and the UK.
How can we face the challenge from economic thinking that fails to prioritise our life support systems?
Already our debilitated health services are being overwhelmed by a considerable increase in mental trauma, due to rapid changes in society and particularly to breakdown in positive social interaction.
We are faced with new challenges in addition to the health impacts of climate change. Our way of living is increasing a range of infections due to diminishing habitat; more epidemics and pandemics are confidently predicted. Industry has produced PFAS, many other toxics and plastic particles now ubiquitous in the human body. All are more than likely to produce a range of new diseases.
To arrest environmental destruction, it is vital that we all come to understand the need for a steady state economy, as espoused by the late Herman Daly, a Nobel Prize winner and ecological economist, and pursued by the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.
This would be a prelude to a “de-growth” economy that addresses the fact that both the US and Australia are currently consuming the resources of four to five Earths with many other countries not far behind.
Herman Daly said, “We have lived for 200 years in a growth economy. In this time, we have come to believe that all our major economic ills — from unemployment and poverty to overpopulation and even environmental degradation — can be solved by more growth. And if the global economy existed in a void perhaps that would be true. But it does not.” Reviewed here.
The case for a steady state economy has been made for Australia but this task is far greater than just environmental and climate considerations. As we address the future issues such as the National Health and Climate Strategy, we must also work for economic change.
Unfortunately this strategy focuses almost entirely on the greenhouse emissions produced by health services; while many other health harms from climate change and its impact on ecological and water resources, our life support systems, are left wanting.
The omissions have been detailed in Croakey. Surely these will be covered urgently in a much more comprehensive report?
The many health harms from continuation and expansion of fossil fuel industries must be addressed. Indeed it could be construed that the strategy studiously avoids mention of the words coal and gas even in the section on energy in existing and new hospitals.
Under the ‘state capture’ described in this article, the Department of Health will understand that the health community will wish to know which health experts were involved in writing the Report or was it written by consultants?
Health in all policies is vital in increasing complex societies and their governments and is included in the strategy, but without explanation as to its delivery by more interaction between silos.
This problem was addressed in South Australia with a South Australian Health in All Policies (SA HiAP) approach intended to stimulate cross-sector policy activity to address the social determinants of health to improve population wellbeing and reduce health inequities. By 2017 it was found that some support existed for progressing an equity agenda through SA HiAP, but subsequent economic pressures resulted in the government narrowing its priorities to economic goals and these have continued to have precedence.
It is distressing that our governments have yet to learn that for human health and survival, “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse,” (Herman Daly).
David Shearman is Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide
See Croakey’s extensive archive of articles on the environmental determinants of health