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Australia’s Environmental Ranking Trumped

By Ian Lowe

Australia has been ranked third-worst in the developed world for environmental protection, and medical professionals are increasingly concerned about the health impacts of climate change.

Australia ranks third-worst in the developed world for environmental protection. The annual report of the Washington-based Centre for Global Development has placed Australia ahead of only South Korea and Japan among the 27 nations it assessed. We were considered even worse than the USA under President Donald Trump. The Centre singled out our poor response to climate change as the area most needing attention, noting high per capita emissions, relatively low levels of taxation on transport fuels, and heavy reliance on coal for electricity.

The negative international assessment was conducted before the Coalition blood-letting led to the scrapping of the National Energy Guarantee. I guess we look even worse now.

For the second time in his political career, Malcolm Turnbull was removed by his Liberal Party colleagues, partly because his moderate and inadequate response to climate change was still too much for those in the government who deny the science.

I have written before about the improbability of Australia achieving its Paris commitment of 26–28% emissions reduction if we only cut electricity generation by that amount, with no attempt to reduce greenhouse gas production from transport, agriculture and manufacturing. Now we don’t even have an energy policy with a weak target, just meaningless platitudes about lower prices and secure supply.

There is even irresponsible talk in government ranks of using public money to build a coal-fired power station, since no private corporation is willing to spend its own funds on an obviously uneconomic project. With drought gripping much of eastern Australia and super-storms creating havoc in the northern hemisphere, it is impossible to justify our failure to respond to what some scientists are now calling the “climate emergency”.

The same US report was also critical about Australia’s poor level of international aid. Under Abbott and Turnbull, in the latter case with Scott Morrison as Treasurer, the aid budget has been systematically cut. It is now down to about $4 billion, or 0.22% of our gross national income. We used to have a bi-partisan commitment to contributing about 0.5% of national income to aid, which would still compare badly with Scandinavian countries that meet the United Nations target of 1%.

Our approach looks miserly to our Pacific island neighbours, who are also critical of our failure to act on climate change as it threatens their very survival.

There has been significant activity recently on the health impacts of climate change. The Climate and Health Alliance held a symposium in Melbourne just a few days after a Queensland report looked at the issues specific to that State. That report was launched in Brisbane, then taken by the responsible Minister to a global conference in California. While many politicians aren’t concerned about the impacts on biodiversity and the health of natural systems, they are clearly worried about the effects on the health of voters.

With the Commonwealth government missing in action, severals states are stepping up. Queensland has reinstated its Climate Change Advisory Council, and Victoria now has a Climate Change Act, a legislative instrument requiring action plans for both mitigation and adaptation. That makes sense, because further significant climate change is locked in, even if future mitigation efforts are much stronger than currently being implemented.

I was particularly interested to learn that the health professions are now getting engaged with the issue. The Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand commissioned a report on including the health impacts of climate change in the formal education of medical students, a move supported by the presidents of the various professional colleges representing practising doctors. Pharmacists have formed a new peak body advocating for concerted adaptation plans.

A report being prepared by the University of Sydney has found that Australia lags behind most OECD countries in responding to the impacts on infectious diseases and mental health. We now know that there was a 40% spike in rural suicides during the millennium drought, and there is anecdotal evidence that the current dry spell is having serious impacts on mental health in the bush. Health professionals are drawing attention to the effects of stress on children, warning that the consequences will continue to be serious for decades.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.