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Motion to ensure we recognise climate change as a health emergency

I move:

That this House:

(1) recognises that climate change is a health emergency as it will impact the core determinants of health, such as food, housing, employment and water security;

(2) notes further impacts of climate change on human health including increasing:

(a) transmission of infectious diseases;

(b) mental health disorders; and

(c) mortality and morbidity due to heat stress;

(3) commends the Government's commitment to developing a 'national climate change, health and wellbeing strategy'; and

(4) calls on the Government to outline the:

(a) timeline for the development of the strategy;

(b) scope, contents and objectives of the strategy;

(c) funding arrangements for the strategy; and

(d) consultation process for the strategy.

During the summer of 2019-20, when the Black Summer bushfires were raging, smoke shrouded Sydney like an oppressive blanket. At my GP practice in Narrabeen on Sydney's northern beaches, I saw numerous patients with breathing difficulty. Similar cases presented in hospitals and clinics across the country. More than 4,000 people were admitted to hospital with respiratory and cardiac conditions, and 445 died that summer. Respiratory and cardiac disorders associated with heavy smoke pollution are just a couple of the health impacts of climate change.

Extreme heatwaves have killed more Australians than any other climate related weather event. And fossil fuel air pollution continues to cause more than 5,000 Australian deaths a year. Global warming is also supercharging the spread of lethal transmissible diseases such as dengue, Ross River fever and malaria. More than half of infectious diseases are being made worse by climate change. Less visible are the psychological scars that continue long after the fires and floods pass.

I recently visited Lismore and heard the firsthand account of a young woman who narrowly escaped death, when, in the middle of the night, cold, dark, swirling floodwaters rose within inches of her ceiling. She told me of her hours-long struggle to keep herself, her mother and two dogs alive; of the warmth that started to spread through her body as hypothermia set in; of the people who held up their children, screaming for them to be rescued, as an overloaded tinny took them to higher ground; and of her inability to work or simply take a bath since. The physical and mental scars from repeated flooding and other extreme weather events will last for years to come.

In addition to these disease and trauma related impacts, climate change also strikes at the heart of the social determinants of health. According to the World Health Organization, the social determinants of health account for between 30 and 55 per cent of health outcomes. These are non-medical factors, such as housing, food, water security and employment. Climate change is putting them at risk. What happens to your health when your home is washed away by a flood or is otherwise destroyed? Thousands remain homeless after the past few years of fires and floods. Many are still living in tents without electricity. A roof over someone's head is the key to safety, security and prosperity, and it is the key to good physical and mental health.

A strong economy and secure employment are, similarly, key drivers of good health. In recent years, hundreds of businesses have been destroyed or had to close due to fires and floods in this country. Consider the builders whose contractors cannot work on a hot roof of a suburban home renovation due to the oppressive heat. As a result, the builder cannot meet his delivery timetable and contractors cannot make their rent. Food and water security are obviously paramount to human health. In 2018, 100 per cent of New South Wales was in drought and farmers were hitting the wall, exhausted from battling day after day with a parched landscape and dying livestock. Increasing floods and droughts both in Australia and around the world will lead to increased food and water insecurity and, hence, greater geopolitical instability and growing numbers of climate refugees.

For over a decade, the health impacts of climate change were ignored, until, in 2019, the Labor government committed to developing a climate change health and wellbeing strategy. This strategy is the result of the hard work of the Climate and Health Alliance and many others. Some of the things that the sector has identified as important to include in this strategy are a decarbonisation road map for the health system; a public education campaign on the impacts of climate change on health; workshops with experts and practitioners at all levels of government to provide feedback; and, every three years, assessing our health system's vulnerability to climate change. Already, our health system is stretched to breaking point and bursting at the seams. We must take account of, and plan for, the additional burden of disease that climate change will place on the physical and mental health of Australians. It is up to us to ensure that the strategy does not sit on a dusty bookshelf.

In summary, as the WHO and the Lancet have unambiguously put it— (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms Vamvakinou):

Do I have a seconder for the member's motion?

Dr Ryan:

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker.

You can view the speech here.