A conversation with the Climate Commission

Climate and Health Alliance members and other health professionals and health service executives met with the Australian Government Climate Commission on Wednesday 25th July 2012 at Sunshine Hospital to discuss health and climate change.

The meeting was hosted by Western Health CEO Kathryn Cook at the new Sunshine Hospital and made possible by Friends of CAHA and Doctors for the Environment member Dr Forbes McGain and his colleague at Western Health, sustainability officer Catherine O'Shea. Commissioners Tim Flannery, Lesley Hughes, Roger Beale and Gerry Hueston and Commission media advisor Amanda McKenzie attended the meeting with around 25 people including health professionals from medicine, nursing, allied health, psychology and public health disciplines, as well as health care services and policy people. Some of the topics of discussion included: What does health sector know about climate change? What can be done to build a greater awareness among health professionals about the risks to health from climate change? What are the opportunities for the health sector to demonstrate leadership in responding to, and being seen to respond to, climate change? A lack of awareness among health professionals about the implications of climate change for health was raised as a barrier to the sector effectively responding. The education of all health professionals on climate and health was considered vital and urgent - including from undergraduate level to continuing professional development for the existing workforce. Professor Lesley Hughes presented the findings from the Commission's report on climate change and health and its latest report on climate impacts and opportunities for Victoria. Professor Tim Flannery explained why they were keen to engage with health professionals: to raise awareness about the implications for health from climate change but also to encourage health professionals to use their own status as respected members of the community to help build community understanding about the need to respond urgently to climate change. Professor Flannery's comments to media before the meeting summed this up: "Climate change is one of the serious threats to Victoria's health, especially those in our community who are most vulnerable, like the elderly and the very young. Few Australians are aware of the risks to their health and the health of their family and community. While much of the public discussions on climate change have emphasised the environmental impacts, a greater focus needs to be on the health consequences. Climate change must be considered a public health priority.'' The meeting was then opened to discussion, with participants encouraged to ask the Commission questions about their report http://climatecommission.gov.au/report/the-critical-decade-climate-change-and-health/ and to discuss what needed to be done to raise awareness among the health community about climate change. Some of the challenges that were raised included:
  • the quarantining of public health sector budgets separating capital from operational expenditure made it difficult to make the case for the implementation of energy efficiency measures as the impact of costs were felt in one budgetary area and the savings realized in another.
  • Other socio-cultural challenges include the complex psychological responses to climate change and the difficulties in finding effective ways to communicate such a complex science in ways that are not disempowering and alarming. Serious concerns were raised about the neglect of mental health risks and the lack of preparedness to respond to severe risks to mental health.
  • The need to engage young people in particular was noted and the importance of including their voices and their concerns in relation to how we respond to climate change.
  • A lack of climate Ëśliteracy' among health professionals was considered a barrier to health professionals understanding the implications of, and the need to respond to, climate change. Education about climate change and health is needed in undergraduate and postgraduate curricula for all health professionals, as well as in continuing professional development for current practitioners, the meeting heard.
  • There is also a need for the health sector to gain an understanding of the gendered nature of the health implications of climate change and climate policy, especially in relation to the differential effect of climate change on women.
  • Other concerns were raised about the mistruths being promoted in the community by the Victorian Health Minister David Davis in a recent brochure claiming the carbon tax would hurt health by driving up energy costs.
  • While there is some degree of preparedness that will help the health sector respond to climate change, with emergency power supplies, and heatwaves plans, overall the health sector is not well prepared to respond to climate impacts. Responses to other risks to health from increased ozone, affecting respiratory health; food and water borne disease and threats to infrastructure from extreme weather event were not well developed and pose potentially serious risks.
Climate Commission media advisor Amanda McKenzie advised health professionals to see the issue as an opportunity for the health sector to make a strong case for action to cut emissions that will also benefit public health and urged health professionals to use their respected and trusted role to build community understanding and action. Ms McKenzie's final question to the participants: "What can the Commission do to elevate the voice of health professionals on this issue?" is the subject of continuing discussion, and CAHA will share further feedback from members on this subsequently. The meeting closed with the message that the climate communications evidence suggests that when climate change is talked about as a health issue, people are much more likely to respond as they see it in an individual context and as something that is personally relevant to them, rather than as a global environmental issue which is distant in time and space ("in the future, someone else, somewhere else"). Coupled with the evidence that action on climate change can help reduce many existing disease burdens, and the esteem with which health professionals are held in the community, this makes for a powerful combination and a great opportunity for health professionals to influence this national and international conversation to help achieve better outcomes for health and wellbeing.