Andrea Durbach and Sofia Gruskin

In November 2019, Ronda Clarke from the Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia gave evidence before a state government inquiry into the impacts of climate change on health. In her closing statement, she posed the question: “[I]f we were to call climate change a disease, would more people take notice?”

A month later, a virus that would result in the deaths of nearly 5 million people was identified in Wuhan, China. The global response by many governments and public health organisations to COVID-19 was urgent and expansive. Almost overnight, national resources were channelled into scientific research to treat and prevent the virus, and to support stringent public health measures deemed necessary to contain it.

The world clearly demonstrated its capacity to mobilise and act in the face of an unprecedented public health crisis. Although largely unprepared for the pandemic, the global effort to curbs its reach and minimise its harm was marked by speed, scale and collaboration.

Within months of the detection of the virus, vaccines had been developed and trialled; modelling predicted the spread of the disease and the consequent impact on health systems; and restrictions on movement, albeit with devastating and long-term economic and social impacts, proved effective in controlling virus transmission.

Yet these vital interventions have been starkly at odds with the drawn-out, often myopic and increasingly negligent global response to an equally persistent but significantly more harmful public health crisis: climate change.

The disease analogy seems apt. The risks to health from the climate crisis are well established. In a special report just released in the lead up to COP26, the World Health Organization declared that climate change “is the single biggest health threat facing humanity”.

For decades, climate changes have been disrupting our weather patterns, contaminating our oceans and waterways, rupturing and destroying our fragile ecosystems, poisoning the air we breathe, the water we drink, and undermining our access to food.

The disintegration of the earth’s natural defence system – the loss of sea ice, forests, wetlands and biodiversity – greatly increases the prospects for pathogens to spread and pandemics to thrive.  And yet our failure to universally mitigate the effects of climate change threatens to undermine the last two years of extraordinary progress and scientific advancement in global health.

The symptoms of climate change –­ extreme temperatures, floods, heatwaves, droughts, fires – are manifestly clear, as are the treatments. What will it take to shake the world from tardiness, indifference and denial in the face of this threat in the same way that countries mobilised in record time to tackle a global pandemic?

This week, as the Australian government dithers about whether to adopt a modest but critical emissions reduction target, international and Australian experts and advocates will participate in an online conference on health and human rights concerns exposed by the climate crisis. At the core of the conference mission, is a recognition of the link between inequalities, the exploitation of the natural world, altered climatic conditions and the unsustainable burden on public health systems.

Protecting our health – our right to life – is an absolute responsibility of our government representatives. In the majority of countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, governments, guided by public health experts, demonstrated an historic commitment to this fundamental human right. At stake was risking massive social disruption and economic loss with enduring impacts. But there was also sound recognition that acting swiftly to contain the virus and limit overwhelming hospitalisations and deaths is, in the long term, key to our economic and human revival.

Curiously, in relation to climate change, many of these same governments who acted swiftly and carefully to limit our exposure to a pernicious virus, have continued, in the words of UN human rights expert Philip Alston, “to march past every scientific warning and threshold, and what was once considered catastrophic warming, now seems like a best case scenario.”

The most significant lesson to be learnt from the pandemic was the need to act quickly and decisively with scientific endorsement in the face of a global health crisis. In addition, was the need to listen to the voice of impacted communities, and to work across borders in a collaborative fashion. No singular nation or business or community can solve this - we must work together as we know we can.

The net benefit of this approach is that it’s ultimately less costly to prevent than to cure.

The disease of COVID-19 is acute; given developments to date, its impact will hopefully diminish over time. The disease of climate change has been a chronic condition; its reach and pace of devastation is escalating. The international collaborations being built around COVID-19 can stand as a bulwark against averting the worst outcomes of the climate crisis. We have all the necessary treatments at our disposal.

Ronda Clarke, Andrea Durbach, and Sofia Gruskin are speakers at Health and Human Rights in the Climate Crisis: Charting Challenges and Solutions, which runs 21-29 October 2021.

Andrea Durbach is Professor Emeritus, UNSW Faculty of Law and Justice, and a member of the Australian Human Rights Institute Advisory Committee

Professor Sofia Gruskin directs the University of Southern California’s Institute on Inequalities in Global Health.