Health ministers’ attacks on climate action just sick

October 8th, 2012 at 12:06

This article was published on The Conversation on 10 August 2012 via the following link: http://theconversation.edu.au/health-ministers-attacks-on-climate-change-action-are-just-sick-8671

By Stephan Lewandowsky and Fiona Armstrong

The ACCC has been vigilant about following up the 45 or so carbon price gouging complaints it gets each day. But who can stop the politicians? Their relentless carbon price scare campaigns seek to frighten, rather than inform, an increasingly polarised public who should be getting the facts on health and climate change.

Take, for example, the Liberal Health Minister in Victoria, David Davis. His recent contribution to the climate discussion was a leaflet for distribution across Melbourne’s eastern suburbs which suggested that the “carbon tax will hurt patients”. He said that hospitals will face a $13 million “tax bill” because “Julia Gillard doesn’t care.”

In actual fact, there is no such tax bill. Even if electricity costs rose by $13 million, it would reflect less than 0.1% of total health expenditure. Given that the Commonwealth will be footing the bill for 50% of the cost of hospital care from 2014, the states can hardly claim the burden as their own.

The most effective method of protecting the health sector against future price rises would be to invest in energy efficiency and distributed energy generation systems. This would help manage future price increases as well as reduce harmful air pollution from burning fossil fuels for electricity. Air pollution puts many people in hospitals with respiratory disease and cancer. Because of this, the previous Victorian government set aside $460 million to make public buildings, such as hospitals, more energy efficient and therefore healthier.

Carbon pricing is in fact a health protection measure. The World Health Organisation, the World Medical Association, the CSIRO, the United Nations Human Development Program, and the Australian Medical Association all call, and have been calling for years, for a policy to discourage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions because of the harm they pose to human health.

Motor vehicle pollution is a killer: moves to reduce it should be welcomed. According to the Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics, between 900 and 2,000 early deaths occur annually in Australia from motor-vehicle related air pollution alone. Coal-fired power generation carries a similar toll – creating a health burden that, if reflected in the costs of electricity would effectively double the cost of coal-fired power.

Mr Davis is Health Minister of a wealthy state in a developed nation. He cannot possibly claim to be unaware of the substantial body of evidence, present in thousands of peer reviewed scientific journals over several decades, that climate change poses far bigger risks to health than a small rise in energy prices – especially when it is offset by generous subsidies to prevent those on low incomes from energy poverty. Indeed, the EU expects that a substantial proportion of the costs of emission reductions will be offset by co-benefits arising from improved health. And the cumulative health benefits are doubled if action is taken immediately, rather than delaying till 2015.

The basis for Mr Davis’s claims is a report commissioned by the Victorian Government. It was prepared by commercial consultant Sinclair Knight Merz and released to the Herald Sun, but otherwise not available publicly. According to the Herald Sun, it estimates an increase of $13 million in health care costs as a direct result of the carbon price.

Mr Davis is not alone in making such claims; similar statements have been released by the NSW and Queensland governments. The Federal Shadow Health Minister Peter Dutton has attacked the (Labor) Tasmanian Premier for refusing to frighten her electorate with similar claims.

These politicians have the job of preserving and safe-guarding public health. Instead of heeding the recommendations of every major medical body, those politicians see fit to attack a measure that is in their constituents’ best interests. In addition to the direct harm to health from fossil fuels, climate change already claims 300,000 human lives annually.

If not from science, where are Mr Davis and others getting their advice? Could it be from the Sunshine coast doctor responsible for the recent LNP motion to ban climate science from schools in Queensland, who thought he could disprove 150 years of physics in his back yard with two eskies and glad wrap?

While the current legislation is hardly a sufficient effort to reduce emissions to the extent required, it is in line with widely accepted policy settings around the world and it is a first step in the right direction.

What are the likely consequences of Mr Davis’s claims and other egregious misrepresentations of the price on carbon?

There is good reason to fear that those claims may be quite successful: we know that once a myth has been put into the public arena, it often resists any corrective effort, no matter how readily it can be debunked. Claims that arouse fear can be politically very effective, especially when combined with a seductively simple antidote – getting rid of the carbon tax.

The Australian media are notoriously incapable of differentiating fact from fiction, especially when it comes to the price on carbon. Indeed, we are not aware of any challenge to Mr. Davis’s claims, and those of his colleagues, in the corporate media.

George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” has been enshrined into Western culture as a symbol for the chilling inversion of reality that results when facts become irrelevant and propaganda paramount.

Victorians should be concerned that their “Ministry of Health” may likewise become known for opposing, rather than facilitating, public health measures that are aimed at managing the consequences of climate change.

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