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Queensland health sector takes revolutionary stance on climate change

Lady Cilento Children's Hospital, Brisbane, Queensland
Lady Cilento Children's Hospital, Brisbane, Queensland

The Queensland government has just released the latest in a series of sectoral climate change adaptation plans, this time covering the health and wellbeing sectors.

The Human Health and Wellbeing Climate Change Adaptation Plan (H-CAP) outlines 10 key priority areas for healthcare, aged care and child care providers in the state to ensure the sector is resilient and well-resourced to manage the impacts of climate change and reduce its own emissions footprint.

It also identifies the major barriers to effective mitigation and adaptation, canvasses funding mechanisms for implementing major recommendations, and points towards some of the linkages with other economic sectors and social policy areas.

It was prepared by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research facility at Griffith University and the Climate and Health Alliance, with input from stakeholders including health practitioners, researchers, academics, care providers and health and care sector asset owners.

Queensland showing leadership on climate change issues

The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) welcomed the release of the plan, noting that it’s the kind of policy leadership needed at the federal level.

“Australia, like most countries, is largely unprepared for the threats that climate change poses to human health through extreme weather events, drought, resource depletion and increased disease outbreaks,” Dr Peter Tait, co-convenor of the PHAA Ecology and Environment Special Interest Group said.

He said  implementing public health measures that respond to climate change is “the direction in which any discussions on national climate policy should be heading.”

“If we are to respond to the health impacts of climate change, it is critical we consult with those who understand them best – health professionals and environmental scientists. For too long, climate policy has been viewed as something to be handled entirely by politicians who most often lack the necessary expertise on this complex issue.”

Dr Tait said the reality is the impacts of climate change are already being experienced.

“It is critical we act now to start addressing these issues, and the states and territories should be supported at the federal policy level to do so,” Dr Tait said.

However, the response of Queensland senator Matt Canavan, currently minister for resources and the Northern Territory, casts some doubt as to how much federal support can be expected.

In an article on the plan that started out with the scaremongering statement that “Queenslanders face paying new pollution taxes”, the Courier-Mail reported that Mr Canavan described the plan as “dopey”.

“This report reads like it was written during poetry slam night at the happy herb cafe,” he said.

“The Queensland Government should focus less on the imaginary threats of a climate induced drug outbreak and more on the real issues of waiting lists and health services for Queenslanders.”

Speaking with The Fifth Estate from the Global Climate Action Summit in California this week, Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA) executive director Fiona Armstrong said that CAHA is pleased to see the Queensland plan “in the absence of a coherent national response in terms of climate and energy.”

“Jurisdictions are stepping up,” she said.

She described Canavan’s response to the plan as “extraordinary, and an insult to the health leaders, experts and professionals in childcare and aged care” who have welcomed the plan and are concerned about climate change impacts.

Ms Armstrong said his comments were an attempt to “politicise an important piece of work to help prepare the Queensland population to be resilient.”

An evidence-based approach to climate change

The plan is an “evidence-based approach” that has been informed by those most at risk and those caring for the people who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts.

It responds to the specific concerns, needs and priorities of the sector, she said.

These include the legal risk that might be faced by health and wellbeing service providers if they are aware of a risk such as climate change, but have failed to account for it in their operational plans.

It also looks at the risks to the wellbeing and health of the workforce in the sector, and the impacts climate change will potentially have on service delivery and health sector infrastructure.

Funding can come from anywhere

Ms Armstrong said that implementation of the priority measures will require funding both from the government and from the private sector.

“We are relatively agnostic about how financing should occur. We recognise none of this happens in a vacuum and it needs investment to finance a response,” she said.

Ms Armstrong said some financing could come from the state government to support state services to invest in adaptation and mitigation initiatives.

There could also be contributions from private investment to build resilience in heath infrastructure, and there could also be a role for impact investors and philanthropy.

Fines for harmful behaviour proposed

One of the proposals suggested in the plan was  a tax targeting the source of harm, which is similar to the approach taken with tobacco products.

“A well-established mechanism [globally] is a financial penalty [for harmful activities],” Ms Armstrong said.

“Creating a financial disincentive to produce greenhouse gases is recognised as an effective tool around the world.”

Redirect funding into better projects

The state government could also redirect funding for harmful activities, such as subsidies for fossil fuel exploration and extraction, towards adaptation and mitigation of the public health impacts of climate change.

Currently, there are a wide range of “perverse incentives” from the governments that encourage fossil fuels, Ms Armstrong said.

The health sector is “ready to lead” on climate change, and there is a “very clear and palpable sense of frustration with the federal government”.

Lack of policy is a barrier to change

The lack of policy and regulatory guidance was identified in the plan as one of the key barriers.

“There is a limit to what we can do without a coordinated response,” Ms Armstrong said.

Some of the suggestions in the report overlap with other state climate change adaptation strategies. For example, one of the pathways for reducing emissions from the health care sector is to continue to expand “hospital at home” approaches.

“It is a commonsense approach,” Ms Armstrong said. “It is a low carbon form of service delivery.

“One of the best ways to not have hospital emissions is to not have hospital admissions.”

It is also a low-cost form of service delivery – but its effectiveness does in some part rely on the quality of the homes people are living in and being cared for in.

“The quality of the home environment contributes to health,” Ms Armstrong said.

“We need to be making sure people have adequate insulation and energy security – that they are not experiencing energy shocks and can withstand extremes of temperature.”

Broadly, the sector is “calling for investment in prevention to keep people well.”

Action on climate is actually our “greatest public health opportunity.”

Ms Armstrong said the actions we need to take across the urban environment such as increasing green space and green roofs, encouraging active travel and public transport use and encouraging a shift to a more plant-based diet will all contribute to better health and wellbeing. This in turn, reduces health sector costs.

“There is a dividend on a personal level and on a society level,” Ms Armstrong said.

“Increased clean air, increased active and public transport, and having a diet that is more plant-based all can increase public health in a very short timeframe.”

This would lead to a “fairly immediate” bottom line benefit for the community as a whole, and in the longer term, a climate dividend.

  • Read the Human Health and Wellbeing Climate Change Adaptation Plan here
  • Find the full suite to date of Queensland Climate Change sectoral adaptation plans including the Built Environment and Infrastructure Plan here

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