HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [10.00 pm]: I want to comment on some broad issues that I think are really important. We are, of course, still in the midst of extraordinary times, as governments around Australia are taking their responsibility very seriously to ensure that they protect their citizens, and I am reflecting on the level of leadership that has been provided to enable that to occur, which has been, importantly, informed by science. That has resulted in a very positive outcome in our response to the COVID-19 health emergency, particularly compared with other countries that have not handled it well at all. I think it is important to remember today that we are still in the midst of another health emergency—that is, the climate health emergency. I will not stop talking about it because we have not dealt with it. We certainly have not dealt with it with anything near the level of urgency with which we have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic.
One thing that COVID-19 has shown us is that we can fundamentally change the world in which we live and that governments can make massive changes, as long as they have the support and consent of the public. Although COVID-19 is probably the biggest global crisis since the Second World War, it will ultimately be dwarfed by the impact of climate change. Peter Baker from The Guardian has written about the similarities between COVID-19 and climate change. He stated —
Both will require unusual levels of global cooperation. Both demand changes in behaviour today in the name of reducing suffering tomorrow. Both problems were long predicted with great certainty by scientists, and have been neglected by governments unable to see beyond the next fiscal quarter’s growth statistics. Accordingly, both will require governments to take drastic action and banish the logic of the marketplace from certain realms of human activity, while simultaneously embracing public investment.
The Australian Medical Association formally recognised climate change as a health emergency in September last year. At the time, it stated that there was —
... clear scientific evidence indicating severe impacts for our patients and communities now and into the future.
The Western Australian government has also recognised that climate change will have a huge impact on health, including as a result of more frequent and intense weather events, and has initiated a Climate Health WA inquiry in March last year. That inquiry is now complete. I asked the minister about the release of the inquiry report today and was told that it will be available soon. The inquiry received 157 written submissions and I want to inform members of the important content of some of those submissions, which covered a very wide range of the impacts of climate change on health. Appropriately, they considered health in the broadest of senses, including discussing the emissions produced by our health sector, which is estimated to contribute about seven per cent of overall emissions in Australia; anticipated increases in infectious diseases and pandemics—that one proved to be absolutely on the money; the health impacts of severe weather events; the impact on vulnerable populations, including Aboriginal communities; the need for targeted research and looking at the importance of vulnerability assessments; and work to ensure that we have adequate medical supplies in stock. We have certainly seen in recent times what happens if those medical supplies are not in stock.
Reading those submissions, which are solely about the interactions between climate change and health in Western Australia, brings home once again just how widespread and severe the impacts of the climate health emergency will be. In its submission, the Australian Health Promotion Association noted that creating environments that make the healthier, safer choice easier for people is a core public health approach and that it had to be applied to climate change. Following that theme, a number of other submissions described the important opportunity that climate change presented that could lead to better health outcomes more broadly by, for example, transitioning to greener cities and promoting lifestyles that will be healthier for the planet and also healthier for people.
In its submission, the Australian Association of Social Workers noted that although the consequences of climate change will affect the whole population, the economic and social burden will ultimately fall most heavily on vulnerable people, a point that was echoed in a range of submissions. Like COVID-19, climate change is, at its heart, a social justice and health issue. We have to move away from viewing it through the narrow economic lens through which it is typically viewed. Some submissions looked at the health impacts of severe weather events such as cyclones, storms, floods and bushfires, as well as the impact of heatwaves. In its submission, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services recognised that the impacts of climate change are already being experienced by the emergency services sector, which we saw over Christmas. The department hopes that the inquiry’s findings will represent a road map for not only the Department of Health, but also a range of other organisations. The Mental Health Commission’s submission recognised the mental health implications of climate change, including stress and trauma after major disasters such as floods and fires, and also the depression and anxiety that can arise in members of vulnerable communities such as drought-affected farming communities. In its submission, the Australian Health Promotion Association quoted the Shanghai declaration, which makes the salient point that health promotion faces a new global context and states —
People’s health can no longer be separated from the health of the planet and economic growth alone does not guarantee improvement in a population’s health.
From the 157 submissions, it is clear that we have a lot of work to do in this space. We have heard from some of the most informed minds and organisations in the public health space. The best way to minimise the impact of climate change on health is obviously to mitigate climate change through lower carbon emissions. The impacts are beginning to be felt and will continue to be felt. It will only escalate, so work needs to be done to address those impacts and to protect people, particularly the most vulnerable within our community. In its submission, the AMA noted —
... WA faces a number of unique challenges in relation to the impact of climate change on health.
Western Australia cannot therefore rely on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to the issue, or depend on interstate, Commonwealth or international actors to consider the impact that climate change is having on the health of Western Australians.
We will need to see this government step up, not be swayed by fossil fuel profiteers, and to use the valuable lessons that have been learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic to respond to the very real climate health emergency that we are facing. We cannot rely on others to step up and fix this for us. We need to act and, similar to the response to COVID-19, it will have to be coordinated, whole-of-government and in partnership with the non-government sector. COVID-19 has shown that Western Australia is absolutely capable of responding swiftly in the face of crisis and, importantly, according to science. Let us make sure that the way we respond to the larger and the longer term health crisis presented by climate change takes a similar path.