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With storm clouds ahead, it’s time for “transformational change for environmental, planetary, and human health”

As communities in Australia and around the world feel the increasing weight of climate change, a conference this week will put a timely focus on “transformational change for environmental, planetary, and human health”.

Marie McInerney previews the HEAL 2022 conference discussions below for the Croakey Conference News Service. See the program, and on Twitter follow #HEAL2022 and this Twitter list.


Marie McInerney writes:

Like increasing numbers of Australians, Dr Veronica Matthews, co-chair of the HEAL 2022 Conference, knows first-hand that “climate catastrophes are upon us”.

Lismore and other parts of Bundjalung Country, in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales where Matthews lives and works, have been hit over the past five years by three major floods and a season of intensive bushfires that were “so severe (that) rainforests burnt”, she says.

The time has come, she says, for transformational change in environmental, planetary and human health, and to “dismantle power systems that enable colonial and capitalist systems of inequality”.

Matthews, who is from the Quandamooka community at Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), is Associate Professor at the University Centre for Rural Health at the University of Sydney and Co-leader of the Centre for Research Excellence in Strengthening Systems for Indigenous Health Care Equity.

Looking back on the devastating March flood that ravaged Lismore and other Northern Rivers communities, which were hit again only weeks ago by fresh inundations of heavy rain, she describes the continuing toll for the community.

“Approximately 1,300 people remain homeless, almost 40 percent being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” she told Croakey, noting that First Nations are already disproportionately bearing the brunt of extreme weather and climate change right across Australia.

“Communities are witnessing disruptions to seasonal calendars, experiencing unbearable heat in inadequately constructed homes, seeing their homes and neighbourhoods destroyed by flood and fire,” Matthews said.

It is a tragic and escalating story still unfolding along major river systems across eastern Australia that underscores the urgency and scale of issues to be raised at this week’s #HEAL2022 conference.

A call to action

The conference is organised by the HEAL Network, a broad coalition of 100 investigators and organisations that uses diverse methodologies and knowledges to address environmental change and its impacts on health.

Funded for five years through the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Special Initiative in Human Health and Environmental Change, the HEAL Network brings together Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, sustainable development, environmental epidemiology, and data science and communication to address climate change and its impacts on health.

Matthews says the #HEAL2022 theme – Transformational change in environmental, planetary or human health – “is a call to action to work together to bring about urgent system change, to change the way we think of and interact with Country and our ‘more than human’ relatives living with us”.

Designed by Gumbaynggirr & Yaegl woman Talah Laurie

She says the foundation of the HEAL Network are Communities of Practice (CoP)s, “spread and connected like river systems across the Country” – as reflected in the HEAL logo, pictured above.

For Matthews, the CoPs form “the lifeblood of HEAL”, made up of community, policy, practitioner and service providers representing multiple sectors with a common aim of improving systems for environmental, planetary, and human health.

“It’s within these CoPs that HEAL research and translation priorities will be formed, implemented and evaluated,” she said, adding that the 2022 conference is an opportunity to make a solid start to those discussions.

Importantly, says Matthews, who co-authored the Lowitja Institute’s Climate Change and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Discussion Paper, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experience and knowledge are at the centre of HEAL’s work.

“The oldest living culture on the planet has survived major upheavals including colonisation,” she said. “Climate change is viewed as a continuation of colonial injustice because we continue to lack control over what is happening to our Country.

“Restoration of First Nations’ rights to land and culture needs to be prioritised,” she said, noting the recent landmark UN ruling in favour of Torres Strait Islander communities that recognised a violation of their human and cultural rights due to the Australian Government’s lack of action on climate change.

Community-led, culturally inclusive

Dr Veronica Matthews

Matthews said Australia needs community-led, culturally inclusive climate adaptation and mitigation that leverage both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Western knowledge systems.

“Our knowledges have inherent value from our ancient connections to Country, how we managed landscapes and enhanced biodiversity and resilience of ecosystems,” she said.

“Our ways of being and doing reflect deep, respectful and reciprocal connections to others and Country.”

And that means a need for transformation in research, policy and practice, she says.

“Ultimately, we need to dismantle power systems that enable colonial and capitalist systems of inequality. We need to cease ideas of dominion. We need to stop placing ourselves at the centre of the universe and separate to our environment. We need ground-up, place-based approaches to address these challenges. We need them now.”

Warning that heavy rainfall, river floods, extreme heat and fire weather events are all projected to increase throughout Australia, Matthews, HEAL Network Director Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis, and other colleagues recently wrote in The Medical Journal of Australia that ‘building back better’ ambitions after extreme weather events “should not be interpreted as just engineering interventions of rebuilding residential areas in floodplains or bushfire prone areas with stronger flood‐ and fire‐resistant structures”.

Instead, they said, there should be an opportunity for more fundamental structural changes in our health system, society and economy to strengthen community cohesion and resilience. This should be strongly influenced by geography and informed by meaningful engagement with rural health services and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and other local communities in rural and urban areas.

Source: Vardoulakis, Matthews, Bailie, et al. MJA 2022

Key themes

Those messages are at the heart of the agenda of this week’s #HEAL2022 conference, which will focus on 14  themes:

  1. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and knowledge translation for building resilience to environmental change
  2. Health system resilience to environmental change and sustainability
  3. Bushfires, air pollution, heatwaves, and other extreme events, and their impact on physical, mental, and community health
  4. Food, soil and water safety and security in a changing environment
  5. Biosecurity, COVID-19 and emerging Infections in the context of environmental change
  6. Urban health, built environment and nature based solutions
  7. Rural and remote health
  8. Clean energy solutions for healthy environments and lives
  9. At-risk populations, early life effects and life-course solutions
  10. Data and decision support systems for environmental health applications
  11. Science communication, citizen science, and risk perception
  12. Planetary health equity
  13. Environmental change and health in the Asia-Pacific region
  14. Climate change and mental wellbeing.

Among many high profile speakers for the two-day event are:

Dr Nick Watts, Chief Sustainability Officer of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, responsible for delivering its commitment to be the world’s first net zero health service.

Dr Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, Head of the World Health Organization’s Climate Change and Health unit and Lead Author of three Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports who led the 1500 kilometre “Ride for Their Lives” to deliver the Healthy Climate Prescription Letter and a call for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to COP27 in Egypt.

Professor Anne Poelina, Co-Chair of Indigenous Studies Nulungu Institute, University of Notre Dame.

Professor Raina MacIntyre, Head of Biosecurity Program, Kirby Institute, UNSW, speaking on the use of artificial intelligence and open source data to get early warnings about epidemics and other public health events (and whose book, Dark Winter: an insider’s guide to pandemics and biosecurity, has just been launched).

Professor Kristie Ebi, Center for Health and the Global Environment, University of Washington, an author of the 2022’s 10 New Insights in Climate Science.

Professor Kristin Aunan, Research Director for the Climate Impacts Group at Norway’s CICERO – Center for International Climate Research, who will present about the ENBEL networking project that she leads and about the EXHAUSTION research project as an example of how different research communities can collaborate to create new knowledge on the health effects of climate change.

Dr Donald Wilson, Associate Dean Research, College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Fiji National University.

See the full program.

Walking the talk

As well as raising and discussing critical issues, the two-day free hybrid (live/virtual) event is designed to “walk the talk” on climate action and sustainable events, according to Vardoulakis, Professor of Global Environmental Health at the Australian National University’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, who is also conference co-chair.

It is aiming for zero air miles, discouraging interstate or international travel, offering full online coverage and regional in-person sessions in all Australian states and territories.

That’s in stark contrast to the recently concluded #COP27, which was sponsored by Coca Cola and brought more than 35,000 people to Egypt, including a significant number of fossil fuel lobbyists.

Vardoulakis said the HEAL Network’s vision is to catalyse research, knowledge exchange and translation into policy and practice that will bring measurable improvements to our health, the Australian health system, and the environment.

It aims to provide the evidence, capacity and capability and tools urgently needed to:

  • Protect and improve community health, especially at-risk groups and people in regions and communities disproportionately affected by environmental and climate change.
  • Strengthen health system resilience, preparedness and responsiveness to changing environmental conditions and related diseases, and reduce its environmental impact.
  • Reduce inequities and inequalities within and across communities and generations.

“So the aim is to have societal and policy impact as well as developing cutting edge research,” Vardoulakis told Croakey, highlighting the importance of the network being “very democratic, distributed, non-hierarchical” through its CoPs.

And, he said, a big focus of the conference will be on the need for the healthcare system itself to adapt rapidly to episodes of extreme heat, bushfires, smoke, floods and infectious disease outbreaks, and to reduce its own carbon emissions to avoid further contributing to climate change.

Unlike last year’s inaugural event, #HEAL2022 is taking place in a more positive policy landscape under the new Federal Labor Government.

Vardoulakis welcomed announcements in the recent Federal Budget on the creation of a National Health Sustainability and Climate Unit and development of a long-urged National Health and Climate Strategy, albeit with a modest funding commitment to date, as well as increased investment in and focus on Indigenous health “which is crucial to the HEAL network”.

“It’s a very positive step,” he said of the Budget direction.


Follow the conference news on Twitter at #HEAL2022 and via this Twitter list of presenters and participants.

Previously at Croakey: On healing, the climate and a focus on solutions.

 

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