AUS - Australia's political engagement on health and climate change: the MJA–Lancet Countdown indicator and implications for the future
Urgent and sustained political engagement is needed to address the health impacts of climate change
Recent extreme weather events and natural disasters in Australia, such as the 2019–2020 Black Summer bushfires and catastrophic floods throughout 2021–2022, have resulted in considerable negative impacts for community and individual health and wellbeing.
As Australia increasingly faces devastating weather events and natural disasters associated with climate change, strong political engagement by governments is necessary to implement effective policies that address the health impacts of climate change. However, whereas countries around the world are taking action to mitigate climate change, Australia lags, ranking 59/64 in the Climate Change Performance Index.1 Australia's political engagement on health and climate change is particularly poor. An international comparison of country engagement on climate and health found that Australia's engagement with the health impacts of climate change relates primarily to disaster response, and impacts in Pacific Island nations — not in its own communities.2Additionally, Australia makes no reference to health in its contribution pledge to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and to date is one of few countries lacking a national health and climate change strategy.3 However, there are signs of improvement, with climate change featuring in the National Preventive Health Strategy 2021–2030, and the new federal government announcing the development of a National Health and Climate Strategy.4,5 Many health bodies have been active on this issue and continue to lobby successive governments about impacts of climate change on health.6,7
The MJA–Lancet Countdown on health and climate change in Australia assesses Australia's political engagement on this issue in our parliaments and bureaucracy (indicator 5.3 of the 2022 report).8 For the purposes of this article, political engagement refers only to parliamentary and government engagement, and excludes broader engagement from the media, industry, the research sector, civil society, and public discourse. Our analysis offers deeper insights into the results of the MJA–Lancet Countdown indicator from several of Australia's leaders in the field of climate change and health, including four MJA–Lancet Countdown co‐authors. It discusses the implications of current political engagement and proposes strategies for external stakeholders to encourage increased political engagement. Overcoming current obstacles to political engagement is vital to Australia's health and wellbeing, and is critically time‐sensitive given the accelerating pace of climate change and fast‐approaching critical thresholds.
Political engagement: the MJA–Lancet Countdown indicator
The MJA–Lancet Countdown measures political engagement using parliamentary websites for the Commonwealth of Australia and all eight states and territories to search for bills, legislation, committees and inquiries relating to climate change and health. The results of the 2021 and 2022 MJA–Lancet Countdowns (which assessed political engagement in the preceding year — 2020 and 2021, respectively), revealed a bleak picture at the national level, but there is promise from some state and territory governments.8,9
2021 MJA–Lancet Countdown (reporting on 2020)
In 2020, no national parliamentary documents discussed climate change and health .9 There were only three bills introduced to the Australian Parliament that referred to climate change and health; however, the linkage was not explicit and only one bill passed into law. Unfortunately, the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act 2020 has minimal focus on health, and in practice has had limited change, particularly given it has not been supported by more substantial legislative frameworks.10 Also of note, independents and minor parties introduced bills, attempting to put the issue on the political agenda in the absence of government engagement. Some bills were referred to parliamentary committees and others did not reach the floor for parliamentary debate. At a federal government departmental level, only one document relevant to health mentioned that climate change contributed to disasters such as bushfires, floods and cyclones, albeit briefly in the introduction.11
At state and territory level, parliamentary engagement across the jurisdictions was also relatively low and consistent with national engagement. However, there was more of an explicit focus on the health impacts of climate change. For example, New South Wales held an inquiry into the 2019–2020 Black Summer bushfires with a focus on health (https://www.dpc.nsw.gov.au/assets/dpc‐nsw‐gov‐au/publications/NSW‐Bushfire‐Inquiry‐1630/Final‐Report‐of‐the‐NSW‐Bushfire‐Inquiry.pdf); South Australia held an inquiry into the South Australian Public Health Act 2011 with a focus on climate change (https://www.parliament.sa.gov.au/committees/sdc); and Western Australia introduced climate and health relevant bills before parliament. Additionally, departmental engagement was much higher compared with the national level. All state and territory governments had strategies, plans or policies relating to climate change that had clear linkages to health, and/or public health policies with clear linkages to climate change. Some jurisdictions also had regional and local level strategies. The political engagement of some health departments went further than merely identifying linkages between health and climate change; for example, the creation of a specific climate health adaptation plan in Queensland; an inquiry into climate change and health in WA; and a roundtable on climate change and health in Tasmania.12,13,14 Victoria also started consultations on a Health and Human Services Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan.15