Economic concerns frame much of the public debate around climate change policy in general and carbon pricing in particular. But these are also critical public health issues.

So what does the health sector think of the carbon tax (explained in some detail at this government website)?

Below is the first in a series of Croakey posts addressing this question.


These “first steps” are a welcome investment in health

Michael Moore and Helen Keleher from the Public Health Association of Australia write:

The health impacts of climate change are rarely on the minds of those who are working to introduce a carbon pricing system.  Health takes a back seat while the environmental issues take priority.  However, action by government to address the environmental issues will also assist in addressing the health impacts.

The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) understands that the impact of climate change will be even more devastating on those at the lower end of the socio-economic scale.   The criticism from Tony Abbott that the system is “socialism masquerading as environmentalism” reflects the efforts of the government to ensure that is does look after the poor.  Health and wealth correlate very strongly as demonstrated by the work of people like Sir Michael Marmot and Wilkinson and Pickett’s Spirit Level.

A carbon pricing system actually begins to address this issue before the health impacts of climate change really begin to impact on poorer members of our community.  It is therefore appropriate for the government to take action to institute structural changes that in turn, will address the determinants of climate change and health.

The PHAA welcomes the efforts made in the package to mitigate against the inequities that are inherent in the system of carbon trading.  Climate change will have a devastating impact on health from changing patterns of vector-borne diseases and heat impact on the elderly and vulnerable, through to food and water security and death and injury from severe weather events.

We also welcome the support from the Greens and the Independents that will assure the passage of the legislation.  No doubt the decision will bring widespread criticism from parts of their constituency.  Some will be arguing that it goes too far while others will be saying it does not go far enough.  The reality is that the Greens and Independents have joined the government in taking a long-term view and they certainly cannot be accused of simply making decisions based on the short-termism of the next election.

There is extensive support from health experts for action on climate change. The Lancet in 2009 emphasised the need for urgent action on climate change while the WHO in its 2009 report, “Protecting health from climate change” called for human health to be at the heart of all environment and development decisions. This included a reminder that human health depends on the natural environment not only for the ‘goods and services’ it provides but that it underpins all economic activity – indeed, the natural environment underpins life itself.

These first steps by the Australian government are the most difficult but they are good beginning. Our community may well require stronger action in the future than the proposed $23 per tonne from next year.  No matter what the system that is adopted now, it may need to be adjusted in the future as community understanding of the impact of climate change become clearer.

The reality is that actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will not only reduce climate risk and environmental harm but will also improve health outcomes and reduce health costs. The package therefore represents an investment in health outcomes as well as the environment.

Action on climate change is about environmental health justice and the right of all people to a safe, healthy, productive and sustainable environment.

• Professor Helen Keleher is president of the PHAA, and Michael Moore is the CEO