Beset by climate change induced storms and floods and facing a tsunami of advertisements for unhealthy food and alcohol at every turn, the theme for this World Health Day of Our Planet, Our Health is timely. Our elected governments seem unwilling to make important decisions for the health of the community, or the planet, with continued investments in fossil fuels, reluctance to take on big business, and a focus on shifting responsibility to individuals rather than pushing forward with the widespread system change that we so sorely need for survival. 

In the face of an unprecedented climate emergency – one that has come with ample warning and a plethora of opportunities for consensus and action – the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released this week is a clear signal that we are at a crossroads – and the choice is ours, between a catastrophic future or acting now, ‘towards a fairer, more sustainable world’.

The recent and continuing storms and floods raging on the east coast of Australia, following horrendous bushfires in 2020, are a continued reminder of the impact of climate change on health. Polluted air and water, poor mental health, and increased mosquito born disease will continue to reap havoc on our communities without change. 

Add to this the barrage of advertising and unhealthy food choices made instantly accessible to much of the community – low quality, highly processed and high calorific food is often cheaper and more readily accessible to many due to inadequate food distribution systems, and relatively unrestrained marketing.  

More than 13 million people lose their lives every year due to avoidable environmental causes. In the Western Pacific, where the impacts of these disasters are disproportionately greater, every 14 seconds a person dies from air pollution. As the World Health Organization states, ‘breaking these cycles of destruction for the planet and human health requires legislative action, corporate reform, and individuals to be supported and incentivised to make healthy choices’ and this requires ‘transformational action in every sector’. 

So much hope was invested in COP 26, yet it failed to generate any real sense of urgency or recognise the determinantal health implications of the climate crisis and unhealthy environments. Progress since continues to be slow, piecemeal, and perpetuated by privilege and greed.  

Yet, there is no shortage of evidence or the will by leading experts to find solutions that are scalable and implementable – and critically, sustainable and equitable – especially in urban areas, where over 55% of the world’s population live and nearly 70% of the world population is projected to live by 2050. From re-thinking cities with networks of parks and alternative modes of transport, to the restoration of trees and creating green spaces, we have tangible solutions that need implementing in order to limit the impacts of global warming and create urban environments that are better for the planet, health and wellbeing. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that the global community is able to come together in response to an emergency to mitigate disaster; it has also sadly highlighted the inequities stemming from globalisation rooted in colonisation. 

As so well said this week by the United National Secretary General, the findings of the latest IPCC report are ‘a litany of broken climate promises’ and a ‘file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unliveable world’. 

Let’s break the cycle of shame. But to do this, we need the will to change. 

With an Australian Federal government election coming up, now is the time for each one of us to scrutinise the policies of all parties seeking to be elected. Quiz your local members,  push the major parties on their policies around climate and health, demand a national strategy for climate and health and don’t compromise – let’s make our vote matter so the next Australian government is not shy to lead on the world stage. 

Because no one wins from an unwilling response to the climate emergency. Because a healthy planet means a healthy and equitable world. 

Professor Rebecca Ivers is Head of the School of Population Health, UNSW Medicine & Health, Honorary Professorial Fellow at The George Institute for Global Health, and NHMRC Senior Research Fellow. Professor Ivers leads a global research program focusing on the prevention and management of injury. Trained as an epidemiologist, her research interests focus on the prevention of injury, trauma care, and the research to policy transfer in both high- and low-income countries.

At UNSW School of Population Health we are proud to have a strong environmental and urban health program, working with multiple partners locally and internationally to address climate change related risks, with Associate Professor Xiaoqi Feng and Professor Evelyne de Leeuw alongside colleagues at CHETRE and HERDU

Recent news from Associate Professor Feng: Could a walk in the park be just what the doctor ordered?  

Recent news from CHETRE: Under-resourced and undermined: as floods hit south-west Sydney, our research shows councils aren't prepared

Recent news from HERDU: Brace yourself Sydney for more transport chaos

Contact Name: UNSW School of Population Health