Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall speaks about the health impacts of climate change

5 September 2022

I rise to speak on the health impacts of climate change and thank the member for Mackellar for this motion. For too long we've talked about climate change impacts, but we haven't addressed the very real way that it will impact everyone in our society, our way of life and our communities. Climate change is a health emergency. It will impact our core health determinants: food supply, housing, employment and water security.

The World Health Organization has described climate change as the defining issue for public health in the 21st century. The WHO warns that the severity of the impact of climate change on health is increasingly clear and threatens to undermine the last 50 years of improvements in health. Think about that. It is just so stark. The IPCC's 2018 special report on global warming states that, if we fail to keep global warming under two degrees, water and food security will be at risk, and some areas of Australia will likely be uninhabitable. From a global perspective, the WHO says that climate change threatens the essential ingredients of good health, clean air, safe drinking water, nutritious food supply and safe shelter, and could undermine decades of progress.

Many of the major health bodies in Australia, including the Australian Medical Association, support policy and practical actions to limit the health effects of climate change. Doctors for the Environment Australia advocate a health framework in mitigation of climate change risks on health similar to that of the UK. It's quite incredible that, in Australia, we still don't have a national risk assessment in relation to how exposed our communities are to climate change, and we don't have an adaptation or resilience-building plan. There are also direct mental health impacts from extreme weather events and disasters, including post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety, grief and suicidal ideation. Such is the prevalence of climate anxiety that the term 'eco-anxiety' has been coined. A recent survey of 10,000 children and young people aged between 16 and 25 years, in 10 countries, including Australia, found that 59 per cent were very or extremely worried about climate change, with 84 per cent saying they were moderately worried. If in this place we are not here to take care of our children's future, then what are we here for? We must address this issue.

In a submission to the inquiry into the climate change bill that I presented in 2020, the Climate and Health Alliance and Australian Council of Social Service identified that those most at risk of experiencing health impacts from climate change are, sadly, those already experiencing poverty, homelessness, mental illness and pre-existing chronic disease. The government's strategy must include a plan for those who are most vulnerable and include consultation with persons with disabilities and their representative groups.

We know, from 2019 and 2020, the devastating impact on communities of bushfires, and, from just this year, the devastating impact of floods. That bushfire season in Australia was a huge reminder of the health threats of climate change, because we saw the respiratory impacts and the danger to physical life. This year, with the devastating floods across the east coast, we saw loss of life, heavy rainfall and floods contaminate water supplies, jeopardise water security, increase mosquito-borne diseases and increase psychological stress in communities. Floods frequently damage power transmission and generation, leaving people without access to refrigeration or the internet, for information. We saw that firsthand all across the east coast. Even in Warringah we had a flooding event. The prolonged rain and floods along the east coast of Australia are causing an increase of mould in our homes. With that come serious health impacts. Asthma Australia research shows that young children exposed to mould and other allergens appear more likely to develop long-term asthma.

So climate change is a health emergency. The increase of weather events in Australia is clearly linked to the destruction of environmental conditions that provide the basis for our physical and mental wellbeing, impacting the air we breathe, the water we drink, the nutritious food we eat, our homes and our jobs. I welcome the government's commitment to developing a national climate change health and wellbeing strategy, and I urge the government to outline a time line, funding arrangements and consultation processes. It is a public health priority, but we need to do more. You can't say you're acting and still support fossil fuel projects. It's time to change.