(The article below is in two parts: an overview of recent developments in climate action, followed by an article from Dr Peter Tait urging public health officers to use their powers to advance climate action.)
Introduction by Croakey: As European authorities prepare for the devastating impacts of an extreme heatwave this week, scores of health and medical organisations in the United States have joined together in a call for action on “one of the greatest threats to health America has ever faced”.
They are urging government, business, and civil society leaders, elected officials, and candidates for office to recognise climate change as a health emergency and to work across government agencies and with communities and businesses to prioritise action on their recommendations for a Climate, Health and Equity Policy Action Agenda.
Meanwhile in Australia, more than 150 faith leaders have published an open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, calling for immediate action on the climate emergency.
They urge the PM to support the demands of school student protests: stop the proposed Adani coal mine; commit to no new coal or gas projects in Australia; and move to 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2030.
The letter coincides with a vote by City of Sydney councillors declaring that climate change poses a serious risk to the people of Sydney and should be treated as a national emergency.
In a Lord Mayoral Minute, Lord Mayor Clover Moore called for reintroduction of a price on carbon to meet the Paris Agreement emissions reduction targets, and establishment of a Just Transition Authority to ensure Australians employed in fossil fuel industries find appropriate alternate employment.
She said the lack of leadership by Federal and some State Governments in the transition to a green economy “has had devastating impacts beyond the environment, causing fear in our communities”, and resulting in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions increasing for four consecutive years.
Meanwhile, experts and community members will come together in Hobart later this week for a series of events examining how to better represent the interests of future generations and young people in climate change planning.
Speakers at the Voices of the Future events include Jonathan Boston, Professor of Public Policy in the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand, and Peter Davies, who played a key role in developing the 2015 Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act.
Hobart City Council recently declared a climate and biodiversity emergency (as reported by Peter Boyer for The Mercury in an article published today, Urgent need to build a bridge over our generational divide).
Meanwhile, in the article below, Dr Peter Tait, a GP, academic and public health advocate, urges medical and public health officers to consider their role in addressing this public health emergency.
Tait is co-author of a letter published recently by the Australian New Zealand Journal of Public Health that states:
Future generations will judge whether our current public health officers fulfilled the community expectation of their duties.
It is up to our current public health officers to decide how they would like posterity to judge them. Therefore, we invite public health officers to explore constructive use of their powers to create change.”
Peter Tait writes:
Action on the global emergency of climate change has been painfully absent despite lots of recent prompting by those who are going to have to carry the worsening consequences. As Greta Thunberg put it succinctly: “you didn’t act in time”.
So, what action might be possible by the public health movement to meet the challenge she has set?
Australia’s state and territory Public Health Acts give medical officers of health (chief and public health medical officers) considerable authority to protect the public’s health from a range of potential threats.
The question is: can these acts be used to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? I think they can.
Given the rate and magnitude of GHG emissions and the consequences for wellbeing and health from global warming and climate disruption (summarised in the IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 degrees), and the call to strengthen the global response in the context of meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, it would be reasonable to think that global warming and climate disruption are health threats that could be addressed through application of powers under the various Public Health Acts.
These health impacts are not a future scenario, but are currently being experienced in Australia through increased severity and frequency of fires, heat and drought.
Reviewing the legislation
Almost all Australian jurisdictions’ Public Health Acts empower medical officers of health to take action that could be applied to both reducing GHGs and the air and water pollution that accompanies their emission. That is, there would be both direct and indirect benefits from action to reduce GHGs.
The question then is not whether it is possible, but whether medical officers would or could use the authority conferred by their Public Health Acts to take action.
Medical officers or health admittedly operate under ministerial oversight and therefore would need to advise and convince their ministers of the need to take discretionary action to address the air, water and GHG reduction benefits by reducing fossil fuel use. The political situation is therefore very relevant.
In the case of some Acts, the indication for this type of use is more in the preamble and introductory sections rather than specifically mentioned in the Act, and so some creative interpretation of the various Acts would be needed.
However, given the urgency and dire consequences of global warming and climate disruption, the challenge for chief and public health medical officers is not whether, but how they might try to use their Acts to minimise these current threats to the public’s health.
To this end, the Public Health Association of Australia is inviting them to have conversations with us about this.
• Dr Peter Tait has been a GP for 36 years, 30 in Aboriginal health in Central Australia. He was the 2007 Royal Australian College of General Practitioners General Practitioner of the Year. He attained a Masters of Climate Change at the Australian National University (ANU) in 2010. He is a Clinical Senior Lecturer in Population Health at ANU Medical School. Peter believes a person’s health is grounded in a healthy society, and a healthy society on a healthy ecosystem. He is on the Board of the Public Health Association Australia and convener of the PHAA Ecology and Environment Special Interest Group, Chair of the Frank Fenner Foundation, active in the Canberra Alliance for Participatory Democracy, and the Climate and Health Alliance.