Save our environment, save our health
More than 180 health professionals and leading health groups have signed an open letter warning that Australia must strengthen its weak environment laws to protect human health.
The letter warns that failure to conserve our environment is dismantling our life support systems, exposing humanity to potentially even more deadly pandemics than COVID-19 as well as catastrophic climate change.
“Human health and wellbeing are fundamentally dependent on the health of the natural world,” the letter states.
“Healthy, biodiverse ecosystems provide us with clean air and water, food and fibre; regulate our climate, pests and diseases; and are the source of most of the medicines we rely on. They also provide places for recreation, psychological rejuvenation and spiritual connection. Connecting with nature leads to happier, healthier communities.”
The letter has been released ahead of the review of Australia’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The EPBC Act was enacted 21 years ago but, according to the letter’s signatories, it has “failed to achieve its objectives of protecting Australia’s environment and promoting ecologically sustainable development and biodiversity conservation”.
The open letter organised by Doctors for the Environment Australia and the Climate and Health Alliance says Australia needs new environment laws to repair past damage and respond to the scale of challenges that we are facing:
- Australia has the second highest rate of biodiversity loss in the world and is globally recognised as a land clearing and deforestation ‘hotspot’.
- Scarce water resources are in decline, threatening many rural and regional communities and our food security. The Great Barrier Reef and other marine habitats face collapse.
- Climate change, one of the biggest threats to our natural environment, biodiversity and to human health, is not mentioned in the EPBC Act.
Associate Professor Katherine Barraclough, board member and Victorian Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia, said, “As we clear forests and other wildlife habitat, we increase the risk of transfer of infectious diseases from wildlife to people. When we fail to address climate change, we risk extreme heat, bushfires, water shortages and food insecurity.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and the summer’s fires serve as a wake-up call. We must recognise the interconnections between humans, animals and natural places. We must protect our environment so it can protect us.”
Climate and Health Alliance founder and Executive Director Fiona Armstrong said, “The COVID-19 pandemic and the environmental and climate crises stem from a failure to recognise that our own health is deeply connected to the health of the natural world. Our health is our wealth — without it, our community, society and economy will suffer.
“The government has listened to the science in its response to COVID-19; it’s time they did the same for the broader environmental and climate crises. Our health depends on it.”
In reforming Australia’s environmental laws, the signatories urge that:
- Human health considerations are kept front and centre. While our precious natural environment deserves protection for its own sake, human health and wellbeing also depend upon it.
- An entirely new generation of environmental law is considered, as developed by the Australian Panel of Experts on Environmental Law. Much stronger and more robust environmental protections will be required if we are to survive and thrive as a community into the future.
- The institutions responsible for developing and delivering national environmental law include individuals with public health expertise. This will ensure our environment and our health are seen as an integrated and indivisible whole.
How weak environment laws have failed us in the past
Examples of nature laws failing Australians include the over-allocation of water from the Murray–Darling river catchment for agriculture. This, combined with drought and inaction on climate change, has led to devastating fish kills in multiple rivers. Impaired water quality, leading to algal blooms, has affected human health — algae is toxic to humans, essentially poisoning the water and its fish, which also impacts the food supply of regional communities.
Another example is Regional Forestry Agreements in various states, which have led to unsustainable logging of native and old growth forests (regrowth is more fire prone). In combination with climate change (accelerated by land clearing and logging, which release carbon into the atmosphere) we have just endured the worst fire season on record, leading to poor air quality in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne and associated death and illness.
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