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On the eve of Australia’s Health and Climate Strategy release, some expert advice from HEAL 2023

Introduction by Croakey: What should be our policy responses to the climate threat, and who should be involved? The answers to these questions, according to a diverse group of speakers at the recent HEAL 2023 conference, is that it must be a very broad Church.

Reporting on behalf of the Croakey Conference News Service, Alison Barrett has captured just some of the passion, expertise, collegiality and creativity that was on show at the event.


Alison Barrett writes:

As well as responding to the health impacts of climate change, the forthcoming National Health and Climate Strategy will guide Australia’s health system on ways to reduce its carbon footprint and contribute to a “net zero future for Australia”, Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care Ged Kearney said in her opening address at the recent HEAL conference.

“I want you to know that our Government recognises that climate change is a significant threat to health and wellbeing, and we acknowledge the urgent need to act,” Kearney said.

The Strategy will be shared with Australians “very soon”, Kearney said, and will outline how the Australian Government “can continue to protect and promote human health in a changing climate,” in a just and equitable way.

Kearney told the conference that targeted action is required to support people who are disproportionately impacted by climate change.

Co-Chair of the HEAL 2023 conference Dr Veronica Matthews emphasised that Kearney “has been a fantastic advocate for not only driving the National Health and Climate Strategy, but also ensuring that First Nations’ voice is central to the development of the Strategy”.

Kearney’s opening address to the conference set the scene for wide-ranging discussions on public policy, as well as co-design, Indigenous knowledges and climate justice. See Croakey’s previous reports from #HEAL2023 here.

Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care Ged Kearney, speaking via a pre-record to HEAL 2023 conference. Screenshot by author

Evidence-based policies

Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis – Director of the HEAL Network and Co-Chair of HEAL 2023 – told the conference that as Australia heads towards an El Nino event this year, it is important that are prepared for high temperatures, drought, and fire weather.

Referring to the recently released United Nations Emissions Gap Report, Vardoulakis told the conference that more needs to be done to stop reliance on fossil fuels. The report showed that global production of fossil fuels is increasing, which is inconsistent with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.

The Production Gap. Screenshot by author.

Vardoulakis told the conference:

It is absolutely sensible to have policy and evidence which are consistent with containing a substantial reduction in fossil fuel production and consumption and greenhouse gases, but also to strengthen adaptation and resilience in the health system… and broader society.”

The National Health and Climate Strategy and Australia’s first National Climate Risk Assessment are very important pieces of legislation, according to Vardoulakis – and the HEAL Network has been heavily involved in the development of both.

Identifying climate risks

The National Climate Risk Assessment is being undertaken by the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, in collaboration with partners including CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology, Australian Bureau of Statistics and Geoscience Australia, to gain a better understanding of the risks and impacts to Australia from climate change.

The Assessment is being done in parallel with the National Adaptation Plan – the “blueprint” for responding to the climate risks identified in the Risk Assessment.

Presenting an overview of the work undertaken to date on the Risk Assessment, Billy Quinn, who is leading the Assessment for the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, told the conference this work will provide guidance and an evidence base for how Australia can build resilience to climate impacts.

The first pass assessment – to deliver a high-level understanding of national priorities for climate adaptation action – will be completed by the end of the year. A detailed analysis of these priorities will be undertaken in 2024 – the second pass assessment.

 

Quinn said some of the expert views identified during the first pass assessment include the need to integrate planning to manage future health in the built environment, and to connect the health system with other systems.

Another finding from the first pass assessment was the importance of secure and resilient housing and infrastructure in preventing or reducing the health impacts from climate change, Quinn said.

He told the conference that experts had also expressed the importance of “taking a holistic approach” to assessing climate risk to the health system, and capturing perspectives from people most susceptible to the impacts from climate change.

Strengthening Indigenous voices in climate action

Via a pre-recorded presentation, the IPCC Voices research team shared some key findings with the conference from a recent report on how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and knowledges can be included in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change process.

The report was invited by the Australian Government ahead of the IPCC Assessment Report 7 planning discussions, in response to increasing calls for First Nations inclusion in the Lead Authorship [of IPCC] from Indigenous leaders, media and community.

One of the Aboriginal respondents to the IPCC Voices survey said:

There is limited recognition regarding First Nations peoples other than relegating us to ‘vulnerable communities’ in the context of climate change.

This disregards our over-65,000 years of sustainable practices and customary knowledge of the natural environment and thus our significant contribution to policy. First Nations need a voice.”

The IPCC Voices research team includes Dr Nina Lansbury, Associate Professor Bradley Moggridge (Kamilaroi), Professor Sandra Creamer (Waanyi Kalkadoon), Lillian Ireland (Melukerdee), Dr Lisa Buckley, Dr Geoff Evans, Olivia Milsom, Professor Gretta Pecl, and Dr Vinnitta Mosby (Meriam Nation, Torres Strait).

While the research team welcomed the request to provide guidance to the Government on including Indigenous people and knowledges in the IPCC process, Moggridge said “consultation has to be done right”.

“We want to make sure that our knowledge can influence the way we manage into the future, especially around the impacts, but also the adaptation and mitigation, of climate change,” he said.

Mosby added that often “nothing comes back to the community” – research and surveys should lead to action, and respect of people’s time.

Although tick and flick survey methods are convenient, they are culturally inappropriate and do not “allow people time to think big”, Mosby said.

Creamer said “we are not the magic bullet for resolving the complex dilemmas for climate change. But we will offer additional tools, advice and community solutions through our traditional knowledge”.

Professor Sandra Creamer presenting on the IPCC Voices video: screenshot Croakey

Another recommendation in the report is that gender equality for Indigenous people must be built into the IPCC, Creamer said.

Ireland told the conference that one recommendation of the report is to recognise “Indigenous peoples as more than stakeholders”.

The categorisation as stakeholders mis-describes Indigenous people’s connection to Country, obligation to care for Country and invaluable knowledge they hold about the Country, she said.

People’s survival, which is inextricable from the future of that Country, can’t be described as a stake, and therefore stakeholders is not a good term,” Ireland added.

A rights-based approach at every level of climate change action will enable the “opportunity to transition into more just environments where we protect environmental rights, and Indigenous people’s rights,” she said.

A video of this presentation can be found here.

Health in all policies

Health in all policies was a strong theme across discussions on the first day of the national HEAL conference.

Professor Lucie Rychetnik, Co-Director of The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, told the conference that climate and health policy is similar to preventive health policy in that, to have real impact, we often need to work outside of the health sector and health portfolios.

However, cross-sectoral collaborations or partnerships can be “difficult to be sustained”, she said. They require investment in infrastructure to support them, power dynamics need to be well managed and reflexive learning opportunities need to be incorporated.

On successful long-term research-policy partnerships, Rychetnik also said it is important to have the capacity to identify a shared vision and mutual benefits, and to be able to respond and act when opportunities emerge.

Organisations like the Prevention Centre and HEAL Network play an important role in linking up and building the research and policy system, Rychetnik said.

While both are funded within the health sector, by the National Health and Medical Research Council, they have a “strong focus on working outside of the health sector”, she said.

She said the HEAL Network is a good example of a “distributed leadership model where decision making isn’t dependent on any one person”.

A whole of government approach led by the Prime Minister or Premier is really needed to support the systemic change required, Rychetnik told the conference.

GP and Doctors for the Environment Australia’s Executive Director Dr Kate Wylie also told the conference that a health in all policies approach could be used in assessing the health impacts of coal and gas.

Wylie said the DEA are asking for a “health trigger”, where all fossil fuel projects are assessed by the Health Minister and “that approval is given before projects can go ahead”.

According to new research conducted by The Australia Institute and DEA, two-thirds of Australians support a requirement for a “health trigger”, Wylie told the conference.

Climate and Health Alliance’s Policy and Advocacy Manager Chelsea Hunnisett said CAHA’s approach is to advocate for health in all climate policies, working closely with government and policy makers to develop the structures and policy levers that are needed to ensure health is part of Australia’s domestic and international climate agenda.

Even if we “turn off the faucet today”, climate change is locked in and we need to be well prepared, Hunnisett said.

Hunnisett emphasised that health in all policies is not easy – engagement across portfolios and jurisdictions is needed but will only occur if it’s coordinated.

She said that CAHA is hoping the Strategy will propose strong actions on governance structures, implementation of actions, and that health in all policies is going to be credibly embedded.

Regional hub wrap

The HEAL Network has a regional hub in each Australian state and territory, where meetings were held on the first day of the conference. Updates from each regional hub session were provided on the final day of the national event.

The Heal Network’s strengths in linking up and building on research, and working across sectors, was on display in these brief presentations.

HEAL NSW Hub conveners, Associate Professor Geoff Morgan and Associate Professor Veronica Matthews, reported that their session included discussions about the need for engagement with the NSW Government, as well as improved community collaboration in co-design.

They also discussed the need to co-design a program of work (rather than just a one-off) with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to address asthma.

Queensland Hub convener Dr Aiden Price told the conference that his group discussed taking action on Indigenous rights in research and policy development, as well as enabling communities.

The Tasmanian Hub session was held outdoors, and involved a diverse group with valuable – and timely – discussions about planning for a catastrophic bushfire day.

Meeting outdoors brought home what was at stake in Tasmania. Screenshot Croakey

South Australia’s Hub convener Professor Craig Williams highlighted work of early-mid career researchers on addressing human health challenges in the face of ongoing environmental and climatic change.

Key research themes include occupational injury and heat, health in all policies and One Health.

SA hub: a broad church. Screenshot Croakey

The Victorian Hub session took a deep dive on the issues of multi-disaster exposures, community-based tools and guidance for long-term disaster recovery.

The Victorian hub report featured several presentations looking at disaster recovery. Screenshot Croakey

Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis reported that the ACT Hub session focused discussions on adapting to climate now and the future, exploring challenges and solutions on:

  • Health service delivery and infrastructure
  • Built environment and housing
  • Water and natural resources

They also discussed the Human Rights (Healthy Environment) Amendment Bill 2023 that introduced “to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in the ACT’s Human Rights Act”.

Similarly, the Northern Territory Hub session discussed climate justice, as well as research gaps and priorities on heatwave management and energy insecurity.

Clear public health messaging tailored to NT’s diverse population needs is critical for bushfire and air quality management.

Supriya Mathew reports from the NT hub. Screenshot Croakey

Associate Professor Brad Farrant provided an updated on Western Australia’s session which had a focus on co-design in practice and bringing together diverse community members.

• Thank you to Dr Lesley Russell for covering and live-tweeting the regional hub session updates. See thread here.

Further Twitter/X highlights from #HEAL2023

Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care Ged Kearney, and Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis’ HEAL update thread.

Policy session thread

IPCC session threads.


Follow the conference news on Twitter at #HEAL2023 and via this Twitter list of presenters and participants, and see the previous articles from HEAL 2023 herehere, here and here.

 

 

 

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