Intended for healthcare professionals

Opinion

Australian election sparks hope for climate action

BMJ 2022; 377 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o1369 (Published 30 May 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;377:o1369
  1. Frances MacGuire, policy manager
  1. Lancet Countdown

Where were you when you realised that covid-19 posed a global threat to health? What was it that broke through your daily routine? For me, it was a 4 am news report that the Italian government had imposed quarantine in northern Italy.1

Such drastic and far reaching action by a Western European government had not happened in my lifetime. It took several more weeks for England to go into lockdown—a delay that has cost our nation dearly, in lives and long term illness.

You’d think that lessons would have been learnt; that we would have realised that during a health crisis decisive, early action is needed to save lives. But while many nation states fail to act on climate policies that will ultimately save lives, the recent federal elections in Australia give some hope that climate action is being taken seriously as voters signalled their desire for a new kind of politics.2

Australians have spoken at the ballot box, electing a Labor government and voting in new Teal Independents and Greens to deliver stronger climate action, move forward on reconciliation with Indigenous Australians, and rebuild integrity in Australia’s political system.3 Meanwhile the UK remains mired in the same mindset of the pandemic; waiting to see how bad things may get, rather than acting in advance to prevent the worst.

On 4 April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its long-awaited 6th assessment report which warned, in no uncertain terms, that the window for effective action on climate change is closing fast.4 Just three days later, the UK government announced its delayed strategy to secure energy independence as Europe prepares to sanction Russian fossil fuel supplies by the end of this year.5

Many in business, finance, politics, public health, and civil society expected this to be the moment where the UK government cut through the cost-of-living crisis, the security crisis (heralded by the war in Ukraine), and the climate crisis with a bold strategy and effective action plans for the short and long term.

Instead, UK’s strategy on energy was kicked into the long grass once again and failed to deliver on the fastest routes to transitioning away from fossil fuels: demand side management, energy efficiency technologies, wind and solar energy, and heat pumps.

One of the most perverse aspects of the climate crisis is the degree to which countries continue to subsidise fossil fuels even in the face of mounting evidence of the harms they cause to our climate and health. The Lancet Countdown 2021 global report showed that in 2018, the UK still provided $12.7 billion of public funds in fossil fuel subsidies, significantly more than directed to clean energy development and the equivalent to approximately 4.3% of health expenditure.6

Now, as Europe and the UK work rapidly to wean themselves off Russian fossil fuels by the end of this year, vested interests protecting the fossil fuel industry risk de-railing this unexpected opportunity. Rumoured u-turns on fracking and new domestic coal and oil ventures risk undermining the global COP26 Glasgow Climate Pact to “phase-down” fossil fuels.7 It’s like having a stop smoking strategy to help people reduce from smoking 40 cigarettes a day to 30 a day rather than quitting completely. Failure to honour the commitments of the Glasgow pact have been described as “an act of monstrous self-harm” by COP26 President Alok Sharma.8

Prevention is better than cure as health professionals know; we cannot afford the wait-and-see approach. A focus on prevention requires a different mindset, plus resources, whether it’s being more physically active, stopping smoking, or eating a healthier diet. Risk prevention requires us to look ahead, forecasting, and balancing risks, despite uncertainty. Most of all, it requires leadership and agency to act before events take over.

Key global events are underway which support proactive multi-lateral action. The 75th World Health Assembly, with its theme of health and peace, has just come to a close. The 50th anniversary meeting of the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, which sparked the sustainable development agenda, takes place in June. Both could help drive forward policy responses to health and climate change, biodiversity loss, and human rights through linkages with national energy strategies which deliver energy independence, security, and clean energy quickly, and cost-effectively. This would truly be a realisation of the WHO health in all policies agenda.

In a crisis, action is needed, including action to change behaviour and mindsets. Government has a clear role here, but seemingly little taste for it. The Australian election signals the beginning of a seismic shift where voters are making their preferences for climate action clear. Coal is no longer King, and sun and wind power may yet have their day. Australia’s voters have just changed the rule book on how fossil fuel economies must respond to climate change.

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: none declared