Watch back: Climate-health motion brought by Dr Sophie Scamps MP

Tuesday 06 September 2022


Dr Sophie Scamps MP

Thank you Madam Deputy Speaker. I move the motion relating to the impacts of climate change on health, in terms in which it appears on the notice paper.

During the summer of 2019-20, when the Black Summer bushfires were raging, smoke shrouded Sydney like an oppressive blanket. At my GP practice in Narrabeen, on Sydney's northern beaches, I saw numerous patients with breathing difficulty. Similar cases presented in hospitals and clinics across the country. More than 4,000 people were admitted to hospital with respiratory and cardiac conditions, and 445 died that summer.

Respiratory and cardiac disorders associated with heavy smoke pollution are just a couple of the health impacts of climate change. Extreme heat waves have killed more Australians than any other climate-related weather event. And fossil fuel air pollution continues to cause more than 5000 Australian deaths a year. Global warming is also supercharging the spread of lethal transmissible diseases such as dengue, Ross River fever and malaria. More than half of infectious diseases are being made worse by climate change.

Less visible are the psychological scars that continue long after the fires and floods pass. I recently visited Lismore and heard the first-hand account of a young woman who narrowly escaped death when in the middle of the night cold, dark, swirling floodwaters rose within inches of her ceiling. She told me of her hours-long struggle to keep herself, her mother and two dogs alive, of the warmth that started to spread through her body as hypothermia set in, and the people who held up their children screaming for them to be rescued as an overloaded tinny took them to higher ground, and her inability to work or simply take a bath since. The physical and mental scars from repeated flooding and other extreme weather events will last for years to come.

In addition to these disease and trauma-related impacts, climate change also strikes at the heart of the social determinants of health. According to the World Health Organization, the social determinants of health account for between 30-55% of health outcomes. These are non-medical factors such as housing, food and water security, and employment. Climate change is putting these at risk. What happens to your health when your home is washed away by a flood or otherwise destroyed? Thousands remain homeless after the past few years of fires and floods. Many are still living in tents without electricity. A roof over someone's head is the key to safety, security and prosperity. It is the key to good physical and mental health.

A strong economy and secure employment are similarly key drivers of good health. In recent years, hundreds of businesses have been destroyed, or had to close, due to fires and floods in this country. Also consider the builders whose contractors cannot work on a hot roof of a suburban home renovation due to the oppressive heat. As a result, the builder cannot meet his delivery timetable, and contractors cannot make their rent.

Food and water security are obviously paramount to human health. In 2018, 100% of New South Wales was in drought, and farmers were hitting the wall exhausted from battling day after day with the parched landscape and dying livestock. Increasing floods and droughts both in Australia and around the world will lead to increased food and water insecurity, and hence greater geopolitical instability and growing numbers of climate refugees.

For over a decade, the health impacts of climate change were ignored. Until in 2019, the Labor government committed to developing a climate change, health and wellbeing strategy. This strategy is the result of the hard work of the Climate and Health Alliance and many others. Some of the things that the sector has identified as important to include in this strategy are: a decarbonisation roadmap for the health system; a public education campaign on the impacts of climate change on health; workshops with experts and practitioners and all levels of government to provide feedback; every three years assessing our health systems vulnerability to climate change. Already our health system is stretched to breaking point and bursting at the seams. We must take account of and plan for the additional burden of disease that climate change will take place on the physical and mental health of Australians. It is up to us to ensure that the strategy does not sit on a dusty bookshelf.

In summary, as the WHO and The Lancet have unambiguously put it...

Madam Speaker

The Honourable Member's time has expired. I thank the Member for Mackellar. Do I have a seconder for the Member's motion?

Dr Monique Ryan MP

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

Madam Speaker

I thank the Member for Kooyong. I call the Member for Canberra.

Alicia Payne MP

Thank you Madam Deputy Speaker. I rise to speak on this motion moved by the member for Mackellar and I commend her for this important motion today.

The World Health Organization has called climate change the biggest threat to global health this century. And we are already seeing this across the globe. Record-breaking heatwaves, fires and droughts in Europe, China and North America. Deadly floods in Pakistan, which have killed more than 1,400 people and displacing up to 50 million. Famine in the Horn of Africa, which has put 22 million people at risk of starvation. Rising sea levels putting the very existence of our Pacific neighbours at risk.

In Australia, in just the past five years, we've had a record-breaking drought so severe that in 2019, the Murray Darling Basin experienced its lowest water level on record. This was followed by record-breaking floods, including in Lismore. In between the two, of course, we had the Black Summer bushfires. I have spoken many times in this place about the impact that those fires had on our region and on my constituents here in Canberra. Of the choking smoke that blanketed Canberra for weeks, dimming our daylight and making our air the most poisonous in the world. Where the air quality meant that people were directed to stay in their homes or relocate if they had underlying health conditions, or to use their air conditioning, which many people didn't have or weren't able to do. The full health impacts will still be unknown to many. Unfortunately, these disasters are here to stay, with fires, floods and drought projected to get worse and more frequent in a changing climate.

We know climate change affects the clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter that we rely on for our health. The World Health Organization has warned that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause 250,000 additional deaths every year from malnutrition, disease and heat stress. The World Health Organization estimates the direct damage costs to health is estimated to be between US$2-4billion a year by 2030. It is a terrifying scenario, given the strain our health system is going through coping with the pandemic already. Developing countries with weak health infrastructure will suffer the most.

But we know with climate action, we can stop this trajectory. After a decade of policy paralysis on climate, Australians voted for climate action at the May election. Australians voted for an Albanese Labor Government that understands the challenges and opportunities presented by climate change and is going to embrace them both. I am pleased Labor is delivering on our promise to take action. Our Climate Bill to enshrine into law and emissions reduction target of 43% from 2005 levels by 2030, and net zero emissions by 2050 has already passed through the House of Representatives. As we've said, this ambitious target is a floor, not a ceiling, and if we can do better, we absolutely will. We are working to get more electric vehicles on our roads which will immediately improve our air quality and health in our cities and towns. Our support for renewable energy will help firm the grid to help us better cope with climate variables such as heatwaves. For too long the community has been forced to take the lead on these issues. And I want to acknowledge the work of the Women in Climate and Health Network that operates here in Canberra who host regular breakfast events, many which I've attended, about ways in which the community can address these issues, taking matters into their own hands. We're really fortunate to have such a brilliant network of women, showing that leadership and raising these concerns in our community.

I'm proud to be part of a government who will now begin to provide the national leadership we need on these issues. Health Minister Mark Butler has been an advocate of a national climate-health strategy, and pleasingly has said that he will make climate change a national health priority. That's something he's already started working on with state and territory health ministers. We must work with the states and territories because they hold responsibility for much of our health system delivery, including hospitals and ambulance services. Many states and territories have demonstrated their commitment to action by releasing climate change adaptation plans, strategies, frameworks and reviews, with health as a core enabling objective. As part of this, he wants to reduce the direct emissions footprint of the health sector, prepare the sector for the impact of climate change, especially heat-related challenges, and the synergies between good public health policy and good climate policy. This includes active transport and diet. This is a crisis that our world must begin to address together and I am so pleased that, after 10 years of inaction. the Albanese Labor government is putting a priority it deserves.

Madam Speaker

I thank the Member for Canberra. I call the Member for Warringah.

Zali Steggall MP

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I rise to speak on the health impacts of climate change and thank the Member for Mackellar for this motion. Because for too long, we've talked of climate change impacts but we haven't addressed the very real way in which it will address everyone in our society, our way of life, our communities. Climate change is a health emergency. It will impact our core health determinants: food supply, housing, employment and water security.

The World Health Organization has described climate change as the defining issue for public health in the 21st century. The WHO warns that the severity of impacts of climate change on health are increasingly clear, and threaten to undermine the last 50 years of improvements in health. I mean, think about that. It is just so stark. The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming 2018 states that if we fail to keep global warming under two degrees, water and food security will be at risk and some areas of Australia will likely be uninhabitable. From a global perspective, the WHO says that climate change threatens the essential ingredients of good health: clean air, safe drinking water, nutritious food supply and safe shelter, and could undermine decades of progress.

Many of the major health bodies in Australia, including the Australian Medical Association, support policy and practical actions to limit the health effects of climate change. Doctors For The Environment Australia advocate for a health framework in mitigation of climate change risks on health similar to that of the UK. It's quite incredible that in Australia, we still don't have a National Risk Assessment in relation to how exposed our communities are to climate change. And we don't have an adaptation or resilience building plan.

Direct mental health impacts also from extreme weather events and disasters, including post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety, grief and suicidal ideation ideation. Such is the prevalence of climate anxiety that the term eco-anxiety has been coined. A recent survey of 10,000 children and young people aged between 16-25 years in 10 countries, including Australia, found that 59% were very or extremely worried about climate change, with 84% saying moderately worried. If in this place, we are not here to take care of our children's future, then what are we here for? And so we must address this issue. In a submission to the inquiry into the Climate Change Bill 2020 that I presented, the Climate and Health Alliance and the Australian Council of Social Services identified that the most at risk of experiencing health impacts from climate change are sadly those already experiencing poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and pre-existing chronic disease. The government strategy must include a plan for those who are most vulnerable, and include consultation with persons with disabilities and their representative groups.

We know from 2019 and 2020, the devastating impact on communities from bushfires, and just this year the devastating impact of floods. That bushfire season saw in Australia was a huge reminder of the health threats by climate change, because what we saw was the respiratory impacts and the danger to physical life. This year with the devastating floods we saw across the east coast, we saw loss of life. We saw heavy rainfalls and floods contaminate water supplies, jeopardise water security, increasing mosquito-borne diseases and increasing psychological stress in communities. Floods frequently damaged power transmission and generation, leaving people without access to refrigeration, the internet for information. We saw that first-hand all across the east coast. Even in Warringah, we had a flooding event. The prolonged rain and floods along the east coast of Australia is causing an increase of mould in our homes. With that comes serious health impacts. Asthma Australia research shows that young children exposed to mould and other allergens appear more likely to develop long term asthma.

So climate change is a health emergency. The increase of extreme weather events in Australia is clearly linked to the disruption of environmental conditions that provide the basis for our physical and mental wellbeing. Impacting the air we breathe, the water we drink, the nutritious food we eat, our homes, our jobs. So I welcome the government's commitment to developing a national climate change, health and wellbeing strategy. And I urge the government to outline a timeline, funding arrangements and consultation process. It is a public health priority. But we need to do more. You can't say you're acting and still supporting fossil fuel projects. It's time to change.

Madam Speaker

I thank the Member for Warringah. And I call the Member for Higgins.

Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah MP

Thank you, Deputy Speaker. And I'd like to thank the member for Mackellar for raising this important motion. We are colleagues, after all, and doctors and I fully understand the health impacts of climate change. But I would urge that we widen the lens, that we don't just restrict ourselves to human health. There is this concept of One Health, where we encompass human, environmental and animal health, and we're all in this together. So I think that it's important to reframe the concept of health into a much broader concept.

When it comes to climate action, we as a government have well and truly moved beyond the 'whether' and the 'if' to now concentrating on the 'how'. We understand the economic, environmental and health imperatives of climate change. We are after all living through the era of consequences. The focus really now is how do we decarbonise? And how do we do this as fast as possible? What are the bottlenecks, and how do we overcome them? It's a far more nuanced approach. I have heard many a time the problem of climate change, a wicked problem indeed, couched in purely scientific terms. I would say if only it were that simple. If this was a purely scientific problem, it would have been solved. It would have been solved decades ago. Solved in the way we found a cure for polio, in the way we eradicated smallpox ,in the way we put a man on the moon, in the era of blackboards and chalk. This is not a purely scientific problem. This is a social problem, a scientific problem and a political problem, which is why it has not been solved.

The government and the crossbench are in furious agreement regarding the need for climate action. But where we differ is in balancing the competing priorities. And what are they? The climate emergency: No question. Energy security: Absolutely. And the uncomfortable truth that Australia has been over-reliant on fossil fuels for revenue and for economic security for too long. With respect to energy security, this is a red line for government. Australians, their businesses and industry must have access to reliable round-the-clock energy. To not do so is simply irresponsible and frankly unsafe. Then, of course, there is this challenge of diversifying our economy. Australia is a fossil fuel giant and has been for decades. We are the highest exporter of coal in the world and the highest producer of gas in the OECD. Coal and gas are our number two and number three exports, earning in 2021 AU$110 billion and AU$70 billion respectively. These resources have made us rich as a country, and we have our regional communities in places like the Hunter and in Collinsville to thank. This revenue has helped pay for hospitals, for roads, for infrastructure, for schools, for research. And it has also supported our local communities. But it has come at a cost and that cost is pollution, which is now fuelling the climate emergency. So while I too want us to move as fast as possible away from fossil fuels, we must have replacement revenue from other sources, or we risk compromising those services that Australians rightfully expect.

We, in this government and this generation, will be the ones that tip that balance. And it's already happening. With the passage of our Climate Bill through the Lower House, we are poised to become a renewable energy superpower. This is not empty rhetoric. There are already several large scale projects that are either coming online or in advanced stages of planning. Within a week of the passage of that Bill, the Minister for Climate Change and Energy announced that six offshore wind farms were coming online. BlackRock, the world's largest investment manager, has committed $1 billion to large scale grid batteries, the largest investment that they have internationally. We also have Sun Cable, who is a company that has this audacious plan to export sunshine from the Northern Territory to Singapore and Indonesia using a cable stretching 4,400km long.

What I would say to our young people in particular, that an industry of despair has sprung up around climate change. And the problem with this is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When hope walks out the door, so does motivation. And I would say to our people "Reject this", because this has no place in our worldview. There is a long history of humanity overcoming the odds, whether that be rebuilding after World War II, whether that be eradicating polio, or indeed closing the hole in the ozone layer. Several people said it couldn't happen. But we did. We must rely on Australians' ingenuity and imagination to get us through this and we will.

Madam Speaker

I thank the Member for Higgins and I call the Member for Kooyong.

Dr Monique Ryan MP

Thank you, Madam Speaker, and I thank the member for Mackellar for bringing this very important motion to the parliament today.

More than 20 years ago, I spent six months as a paediatric registrar in Darwin. During that time years ago, I spent some months in Maningrida, about 500km east of Darwin in the Northern Territory, running medical clinics. The main illnesses that affected the Kunibídji children and the community in which I was working were Failures to Thrive, infectious gastroenteritis, ear, respiratory and skin infections. All of those conditions are common childhood illnesses throughout Australia, but they affected First Nations children far more often, and far more severely than their urban counterparts. 20 years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Third Assessment Report found that Indigenous peoples are most at threat to suffer the impacts of climate change, along with those people from small island populations. In the years since my time working as a doctor in the Top End, the Northern Territory has gotten hotter. The wet seasons are wetter, the dry seasons more dry. The number of days with dangerous weather conditions for bushfires has increased, and the frequency of extreme weather events has increased. More than 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples live in remote areas of Australia, mostly in communities in the north of the country. The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation states that the impacts of climate change amplify the health and wellbeing issues faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and communities.

No matter where we live, our environment, our communities and our environment are all vulnerable to the changing climate. Five years ago, the Lancet's Australian Countdown study confirmed that all Australian cities are highly vulnerable to raising temperatures and the impacts of extreme weather events. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners followed up this study and found that Australia's current carbon emissions trajectory is projected to triple, yes, triple, heatwave-related deaths in the cities of Brisbane and Melbourne in our lifetimes. If we don't urgently change course within 50 years, the City of Sydney's heat-related deaths will increase fivefold. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners has also identified climate change as a key public health issue. In addition to the suite of chronic respiratory, cardiac, cerebrovascular, multisystemic illnesses caused by changes to our climate, people subjected to extreme heat, catastrophic weather events, and prolonged drought can experience significant long-term mental health impacts and psychiatric illnesses. The climate change is a health crisis.

Today, nurses, midwives psychologists, the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian College of Physicians have issued a set of urgent recommendations to the Albanese Government for a national strategy on climate, health and wellbeing, including a Sustainable Healthcare Unit within the Department of Health. I wholeheartedly endorse this recommendation.

There is no scientific scenario, no economic scenario, and no responsible medical scenario in which Australia can open any new coal projects. Right now, there are more than 100 new coal and gas projects coming down the investment pipeline, each at a different stage of development. If these projects come to fruition, they will more than double Australia's carbon emissions, and these coal and gas projects will disproportionately harm Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The previous government handed out $55 million of grants to oil and gas companies seeking to extract fossil fuel from the Beetaloo Basin. One of those companies was Tamboran Resources, which was afforded $7.5 million in taxpayer money to explore the area, despite having called on the Australian Government to abandon its goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

I became a paediatrician to help sick children in my care get better. I came to Australia because I think it's my duty to do everything in my power to help to prevent the harm that global warming can cause. The people of Kooyong have sent me to Parliament to say to the Labor Government on their behalf: Australia must urgently transition to clean energy industries and to a net zero emission economy. We cannot in good conscience do anything else. To do anything else would be a betrayal of our children.

Madam Speaker

I thank the Member for Kooyong. There being no further speakers, the debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.