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Climate Change as a Health Emergency

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Tags: Climate Change

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise tonight to recognise the leadership of the Australian Medical Association, which has joined with other health organisations around the world, including the American Medical Association, the British Medical Association, Doctors for the Environment Australia, and today has made a strong statement recognising climate change as a health emergency.

Their statement notes that we will have early and very severe health impacts on people in Australia and Pacific, along with people across the world everywhere.

The AMA recognises the evidence of climate change is complete and irrefutable. It shows that there are impacts for patients and communities already, which will continue to worsen into the future, they say.

The AMA President, Dr Tony Bartone, said today the scientific reality is that climate change affects health and wellbeing, and will cause high mortality and morbidity from heat stress. It will cause injury and mortality from increasingly severe weather events, increases in the transmission effect of airborne diseases, food insecurity resulting from declines in agricultural outputs, and a higher incidence of mental health. Dr Bartone notes that these effects are already being observed internationally and in Australia.

The significant health impacts of climate change have been well known for some time now. The AMA has held a position on the relationship between climate change and health in 2004. At that time I was working at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the ANU in Canberra undertaking research for the Commonwealth Department of Health on the future climate change impacts for Australia and the Pacific.

I co-produced a report with the AMA at the time, and Greenpeace, that addressed the need to limit global greenhouse gas emissions to 350 parts per million to avoid damaging impacts on human communities. That seemed like an impossible future where parts per million for carbon dioxide would be 400, but it seems we have already passed that unbelievable future and that is actually two years behind us for the planet.

Levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached yet another record high and the World Meteorological Organisation said last October that the concentrations are now 405 parts per million, so beyond what we thought was possible a mere 16 years ago. These have gone up steadily year by year and there is no sign of this trend reversing, the WMO says. There has been a 41 per cent increase in the heating of the planet that is causing sea level rise, ocean acidification and more extreme weather.

The science is clear. Without rapid cuts in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, this will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth. According to the World Meteorological Organisation's secretary-general last year, the window of opportunity for action is almost closed. The latest official data released last week confirms that Australia's greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. National emissions increased by 3 million tonnes just last year and they have been jumping year on year.

This is a trend that is causing damage to human life in Australia now and we call on the Minister for Health, the Minister for Mental Health, the Minister for Energy and the Premier to do everything they can to work with AMA Tasmania to develop a strategy for the state for health and climate change, to work with Doctors for the Environment Tasmania on their plans to have resilience and to help people adapt with the anxiety and stress they are feeling about the failure to recognise the reality of what is happening on the planet and the failure of this Government to recognise we are in a climate emergency.

I plead with the Minister for Mental Health and Wellbeing who is sitting in the Chamber. That is fantastic but we need the whole Government working with the AMA and other health bodies to help us adapt for a future that is no longer the future. It is the present. We have the next summer in front of us. We can be doing more to prepare for that. We know some of the things that need to happen. We learned from what happened last year in Geeveston, Huonville, central Tasmania and on the west coast. Doctors for the Environment Tasmania learned from those communities. They have ideas for what we need to do. Let us not have communities suffering like they did last year when we can do more to help people prepare.