In a letter to The Lancet twenty-two health professionals have condemned the Australian government’s contemptuous responses to the report ‘Global Warming of 1.5oC’ prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The letter includes a call for action covering the phase out of coal mining and burning, an increased CO2 emissions reduction target and an increased renewable energy target.
When the world’s nations signed the Paris climate change agreement in December 2015 they requested the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC – a panel of scientists, not politicians or diplomats) to prepare a report comparing the effects on the environment and humanity of 1.5oC and 2oC of global warming and assessing whether it was still possible for global warming to be limited to 1.5oC. The report Global Warming of 1.5oC was published a month ago. The report’s main findings are that:
- the current 1oC of warming is causing significant environmental, economic, health and social problems across the globe;
- warming of 1.5oC will increase the problems considerably;
- there are tremendous environmental and human benefits to be gained from limiting warming to 1.5oC compared with 2oC;
- it is still just feasible technologically and economically to keep warming below 1.5oC but the scale of social and economic change required is unprecedented;
- actions to limit warming must proceed concurrently with actions to reduce global poverty and inequality and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals;
- warming may exceed 1.5oC in as little as 12 years if current national policies and greenhouse gas emissions continue unchanged.
The report has received much media coverage around the world and many governments have taken its findings and recommendations as further confirmatory evidence, if any were needed, that collaborative and dramatic action on climate change is urgently required.
Not so in Australia, however … surprise, surprise. Scott Morrison quickly shot the report down with comments such as: ‘We’re not held to any of (those recommendations) at all, and nor are we bound to go and tip money into that big climate fund’ and ‘That report was delivered not to Australia, it was a global report. It didn’t contain any recommendations for any actions by Australia’. At the same time, despite the IPCC saying that coal use needed to be close to zero by 2050, Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack confirmed the government’s ongoing commitment to coal mining and coal-fired energy generation, and dismissed the possibility of policy change ‘just because somebody might suggest that some sort of report is the way we need to follow and everything that we should do’. Even former Liberal party leader John Hewson described the government’s response to the report as ‘grossly irresponsible’.
Climate change has extremely serious consequences not only for the environment but also for the physical and mental health of humans. The health effects are already being experienced around the globe, particularly from extreme weather events such as cyclones, heat waves and droughts. As warming increases, such events and their health effects will worsen and will be compounded by the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue and food poisoning, higher concentrations of ozone in the air, food and water insecurity and forced migration.
Horrified by the Australian government’s dismissive responses to the carefully compiled, evidence-based, well-referenced, peer-reviewed IPCC report, 22 senior Australian health professionals, including myself, wrote a letter to The Lancet, one of the world’s most respected medical journals. We described the government’s response as ‘contemptuous’ and pointed out that this was especially ironic bearing in mind that no country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is as vulnerable to climate change as Australia. We also highlighted the particularly vulnerable positions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and our Pacific Island nation neighbours. The letter included a five point call to action including phasing out of all fossil fuels, increasing the national renewable energy target to at least 50% by 2030, developing a plan to reduce carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2030, developing multisector regional development plans for affected Australian communities, and supporting Pacific Island nations.
Peter Sainsbury is a specialist in public health medicine. He is a past president of the Public Health Association of Australia and the Climate and Health Alliance. He is extremely pessimistic about the world avoiding catastrophic climate change.