As the rest of Australia watches with interest to see what verdict Queenslanders will give the Newman government, the battle for votes has left our northern neighbours with some huge issues to consider in a short amount of time. In this post Sue Cooke, provides food for thought on the key issues of health and climate change.
Sue is a Brisbane based educator, health promoter and climate activist, who has post-graduate qualifications in public health, education and environmental change. Previously a policy adviser in the health and education sectors, she is an occasional lecturer in climate change and public health.
In uncertain times, the natural desire is for a “strong leader”. Populist messages promising strength and clear direction are deeply appealing. Campbell Newman and his colleagues are counting on Queenslanders buying this message, if the bombardment of messages on “strength” and promises to deliver just what we want is anything to go by. No doubt it is the best advertising our money can buy.
While Queenslanders may be thankful it will be a quick campaign, we can’t afford to be seduced by powerful ad campaigns and three-, or even two-word slogans.
There are many issues at stake, but let’s take health, and the economy for a start. OK, there’s also climate change in there too, but I’ll come to that later.
How are health, the economy and the rapidly approaching election connected you ask? And what have they got to do with climate change?
The missing link is coal*.
Campbell Newman says Queensland is “in the coal business”. He’s got Tony Abbott on side too; telling us “coal is good for humanity”, though it seems not too many people swallowed that whopper, if the social media response was anything to go by.
I understand that energy is good for humanity, but it doesn’t actually have to come from coal.
Coal is very bad for health. “Every phase of coal’s lifecycle (mining, disposal of contaminated water and tailings, transportation, washing, combustion and disposal of post combustion wastes) produces pollutants that affect human health”. Coal presents major human health risks. Not surprising when you consider that “coal mining and burning coal for electricity emits known toxic and carcinogenic (cancer causing) substances into our air, water and land.”
Surprisingly toxic stuff is coal. In case you are in any doubt about the “goodness” of coal for humanity, if you happen to live near where coal is mined, transported, stored or burnt for energy, you and your children and community are at risk of significant health damage.
Further, none of this is accounted for in the marketplace. Air and carbon pollution and the associated health damage do not cost the producers a cent. We, the community, pay for it, and (incidentally) we’re not given a choice in the matter.
“The significant health costs associated with coal are not currently reflected in the price of coal-fired electricity in Australia. In 2009, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) estimated coal’s health impacts cost taxpayers $2.6 billion every year.”
The impact of coal on health is two-fold as coal combustion is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and climate change is bad for health.
Climate change is “the biggest threat to global health of the 21st century” as the Lancet reported in 2009. Health experts say everyone will be affected, and we can expect increased illness, injury and deaths from both direct climate impacts and indirect impacts. Direct impacts on health include heat stress, heart disease, lung conditions like asthma, injuries, anxiety and depression, arising from more severe heatwaves, storms, cyclones, droughts and floods – or extreme weather events.
We will suffer from poorer air quality from increased ozone-exacerbated air pollution as well as changes in pollen and mould.
As for the ‘indirect’ health impacts of climate change (mainly caused by past and continuing use of coal), for us, the changed weather patterns mean more water and food borne illnesses, the spread of mosquitoes and ticks and other nasties into new territories, bringing dangerous new infections and illnesses that we may not have had to cope with previously, e.g. dengue fever and chikungunya.
Disruptions to agricultural cycles, new pests and diseases and decreased yields affect our food production and erode our food security.
These and other health “side effects” are certainly not “good” for humanity.
If the health impacts of a changing climate still seem a bit abstract or distant, consider that doctors in the US believe that climate change is harming their patients’ health, now. It is not just poor people in poor countries being affected. US doctors are seeing increases in chronic diseases related to air pollution, increased allergic reactions from plants or mould and injuries related to severe weather.
Here in Australia, the anxiety and mental health issues in children and young people following increasing climate change related extreme events like bushfires, cyclones and floods, and their growing awareness of uncertain futures provide a clear and painful glimpse of the impost on our health of climate change. And of course, none of us wants our children to suffer such imposts.
But do we have to bear these costs, to keep our economy “strong” as our politicians and the multinational mining corporations are telling us? The evidence keeps coming that the opposite is true, and that economically, coal is too risky. Even if coal wasn’t the main cause of climate change (and it is), the economic argument against hitching our wagon to this 19th century fuel in a warming 21st century world is strong enough on its own to make us switch our focus to cleaner, cheaper, safer ways of producing energy, like wind power and solar.
Alternatives are available and affordable. When costs to environment and health are included, electricity from renewable sources is already cheaper than fossil fuel-based electricity, including coal.
Queenslanders would do well to call for comprehensive, independent cost benefit analysis of the proposed mega mining of central Queensland’s Galilee basin, and associated costs of getting coal to and through Great Barrier Reef ports and marine sanctuaries. Analysis shows prices for coal are low, and costs of developing, mining, transporting and burning the stuff are high and rising.
The LNP Newman Government’s (and Labor Governments’ before it) frenzied activity to shore up an ailing, health-compromising, 19th century, industry, belies both the economic consensus and the scientific consensus that most of our coal, oil and gas must be left in the ground – if we are to have even a reasonable chance at retaining a moderately safe climate.
Research published in Nature last week confirms that over 80% of current coal reserves globally should remain in the ground and not be used before 2050 if we are to have a 50% chance that global warming is to stay below the 2°C “safe” target agreed by policy makers.
How do you like those odds?
In Queensland, in economic terms we are being railroaded into paying for some very expensive, potentially stranded assets, and in the process of acquiring them, doing profound damage to our natural riches – our food-producing land, our limited fresh water, the lives of the farmers and rural communities who have been feeding us, not to mention our iconic Barrier Reef and the tourism industry it supports. Not to mention our atmosphere and climate system stability.
Imagine if the money currently being wasted in ongoing fossil fuel exploration and development, reputedly well over $600 billion/year globally, and billions locally – were invested in building our new clean energy system. Sadly, the Newman Government has been relentlessly anti-renewables, demonising solar energy in particular.
In reality, the opportunity costs of its current energy policies will make it harder, and slower, for us to make the transition to a clean energy system down the track. It will deny our children and young people the new clean-tech jobs in renewable energy and the regenerative social, ecological and economic developments we want and need for a safe and prosperous future. It doesn’t have to be this way.
So, this month, during this rapid fire election campaign, will Queenslanders be dazzled by the hard hats and high viz vests, the inflated promises of thousands of new coal and gas jobs? Alternatively we could see through the smoke and mirrors, apply our critical faculties and make the hard choice to focus on what’s really important: health, economy, clean energy and jobs, and yes, climate change.
 McDermott, B & Cobham, C (2012) A Road Less Travelled: A Guide to Children, Emotions and Disasters. Brisbane: TDF Publishing.
* For brevity’s sake, let’s leave gas out of it just at the moment, though that’s another polluting fossil fuel that’s being extracted and exported as quickly and as cheaply as possible, and never mind the consequences to land, water, and people in the way.