Civil Society Steps Up For A Healthy Climate

Political leaders might have dropped the ball on responsible climate policy but health sector leaders have responded with a new advocacy alliance in recognition of the risks climate change poses to public health, reports Fiona Armstrong

Growing disillusionment with the absence of national political leadership on climate change prompted a group of health sector leaders to meet in Melbourne last week — and to establish a climate and health alliance.

Representing organisations and individuals, the alliance is based on the collective understanding that climate change poses a serious and increasing threat to human health. It also recognises that health stakeholders have an important contribution to make in advocating for policy action on climate change and environmental issues.

Last year experts warned (pdf) in the international medical journal The Lancet that climate change poses severe and increasing risks to global public health. The extent to which scientific evidence in both these policy areas is being disregarded by government is a cause for deep concern among health professionals, given that their practice is based on, and depends on, an acceptance of scientific evidence.

Many people were optimistic about a global agreement to reduce emissions and halt further global warming last year. While there was widespread cynicism about the chance of an effective global agreement in Copenhagen, few could have predicted the extent to which governments in Australia would fail to respond to the imperative for action.

In establishing this alliance, the health sector is tackling directly the need for leadership in a policy space that has effectively been vacated by our political leaders.

There is an important role for civil society in helping to fill this leadership vacuum. If political intransigence continues in parliament, it will also be necessary for other sections of civil society to step up and provide leadership on climate policy. Those in the health sector are being joined by people in the arts, churches, welfare groups, unions, farmers and business groups. But they all need to make their voices much, much, louder if their message is to cut through to the wider community with urgency.

Australia now faces an uncertain economic and energy future as our reliance on fossil fuels puts us at risk of economic shock when the carbon intensity of its exports becomes a trade barrier and oil prices rise further. Despite the powerful lobby of vested interests currently advocating for no action on climate change, future economic and energy security requires reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and switching to other natural resources, such as the sun and the wind, for our energy supply. However if our political leaders will not resist the overtures of those with a vested interest in the status quo and act in the national interest, it must fall to leaders in civil society, as well as individual members of the community, to make this position politically untenable.

Health professionals consider climate change to be an issue of public health and safety, and the alliance hopes to help build community support for governments to stand up to those vested interests.

The failure of our political leaders to display any signs of intestinal fortitude on this issue in the current election campaign, however, does not offer much cause for immediate optimism.