The IPCC report amidst COVID-19 highlights why a dual health crisis response matters

| August 12, 2021

COVID-19 and its frightening threats to public health have understandably placed the pandemic at the forefront of Australians’ psyche. The new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has this week put the spotlight on the stark reality of another health threat—climate change.

The IPCC report released earlier this week has warned in the strongest possible way that climate change is here and now, and it is accelerating. The Earth’s temperature is projected to hit 1.5֯C in this decade, a full decade earlier than previous predictions.  This marks a threshold of a domino effect of more intense and frequent fires, floods, and drought which would wreak unprecedented havoc on humanity.

The face of climate change is already terrifying. We have seen its effects in our own backyard through the devastating Black Summer Bushfires. We are also already seeing its effects overseas, with North AmericaTurkey, the Gulf of Mexico and Greece on fire, floods ravaging Germany and Belgium, and commuters drowning in China in the subway.

Besides extreme weather events, climate change also increases our burden of disease, our mental distress, the strain on our healthcare system, and exacerbates social inequities for already marginalised communities.

As a young person, these existing and future impacts on many people both in our own country and overseas, make me very concerned about what my and younger generations will face in the very near future.

As a young person in my final year of medical school, I am anxious about the health of my future patients and how our health system will cope with a compounded load. And as a young person, it is inconceivable that our political leaders – despite knowing about the devastation climate change has caused and can cause – are devoid of a robust action plan and are focused instead on scoring political points.

The science is abundantly clear that the time to act is now. As with COVID-19, a response to climate change is a moral and health imperative just as any other crisis. 

In this already vulnerable time, action is imperative to prevent a severe cost to current and future generations.

There is momentum for change

Numerous health organisationsincluding the AMA, are recognising that we are experiencing a climate emergency. The recent Sharma v Minister for the Environment Federal Court case ruling highlighted the legal duty of care current decision-makers have to safeguard health for young people when it comes to responding adequately to the climate emergency.

 Other nations are increasing their targets for emissions reduction, and there is widespread citizen desire for more ambitious climate action in Australia.

In Australia, the barriers to solving climate change are not scientific or technological, but political. As one of the largest coal exporters in the world, and in the top ten countries in fossil fuel use per capita, our pathetic emissions reduction target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030 is woefully inadequate to limit global temperatures by 1.5֯C.

In international summits, Australia is consistently shown up as a laggard and was embarrassingly awarded the wooden spoon for coming last out of 193 United Nations member countries for climate action.

Despite the IPCC report demanding urgent movement towards zero emissions and a moratorium on new coal projects, our key decision-makers continue to prop up the fossil fuel industry through a gas-led pandemic recovery.

Proposals for new domestic fossil fuel projects such as thePetroleum Exploration Licence 11 (PEP-11) along the NSW east coast, gas exploration near the Twelve Apostles, fracking the Beetaloo Basinand Santos’s Narrabri coal seam gas project (the most opposed project in the history of the Independent Planning Commission) are still being backed by our government.

As one of the most vulnerable high-income nations to the impact of climate change, we are not adequately prepared for the climate impacts that have already arrived, and the window for climate action is rapidly closing.

Our healthcare system is already strained from the existing pandemic crisis. The federal AMA has stated that Australia’s healthcare system would not be able to cope with a COVID-19 surge, while last week, Lifeline recorded the highest number of calls they had ever received as isolated people across the country struggled in lockdown.

These are sobering reminders of the current health service incapacity, and the climate emergency is only increasing and compounding this burden.

Despite the terrifying conclusions of the IPCC report, which United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres described as a “code red for humanity”, there is a take-home message: If we act now, we still have time to restore planetary health.

Crisis responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have demonstrated that international collaboration, transparent health policy, and interventions directed by science and lead by experts can safeguard public health.

As we are quickly approaching the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), and 50 years of international climate action negotiations, it is crucial that we take this event as a key opportunity for Australia to unite in the international fight against climate change, as we did with the pandemic response.  

With Australia’s huge potential for wind and solar, we can confidently heed the IPCC’s advice and substantially reduce emissions this decade –  for both the wellbeing of our nation and our global neighbours, during this time of concurrent crises.