OPINION | Climate change policy the healthy choice

Henry Rolland Park in Canberra, December 2020, as the Civic air quality station reported a hazardous air quality index. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Henry Rolland Park in Canberra, December 2020, as the Civic air quality station reported a hazardous air quality index. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

This time last year I was planning out my festive holiday calendar.

I remember the joy of writing down Christmas events, receiving invitations, and looking forward to seeing all my friends and family, holding loved ones and celebrating in large groups.

But anyone who experienced the horrific impacts of Canberra's 2019 Christmas season, where we had the worst air quality in the world for weeks on end, will remember the very real impacts of climate change on our health and how this all brought our plans to celebrate to an abrupt halt.

Residents will remember breathing in hazardous air for days, pushed by winds from the surrounding, unstoppable fire fronts. Air quality index readings above 200 are considered hazardous to health, and at one point, readings at one Canberra monitoring site peaked at 7700.

It was a New Year's Eve like no other last year, when Canberra experienced its worst air quality on record, where pregnant friends and family members were afraid to go outdoors, where those with respiratory disease frantically sought places where air was cleaner, and where mental health impacts of what seemed like endless weeks of poor air quality were then followed by months of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And yet, this summer we are facing the opposite. With heat waves sweeping the country and torrential rains predicted, we are again reminded of the fragility of our environment to the impacts of climate change.

That is why Australia's top health experts and groups have called for the federal government to apply the same level of urgency to climate change as they did to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is clear that we are willing to make sacrifices if we understand the threat, and that our actions now will lead to a better future for everyone.

Billed as 'Healthy, Regenerative and Just' and released with an Open Letter to the Prime Minister, the policy agenda calls for all levels of government and sectors of society to integrate public health, climate preparedness and environmental protection measures.

We have a moment now, health groups say, to align our health and climate goals to stabilise and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. This will help deliver us a healthy, regenerative and just future.

All Australians should make their voices heard, and make it clear to those who represent them, at every level of government, that they're expected to respond positively and actively to adopt this policy agenda.

Alison Verhoeven is the Chief Executive Australian Health Care and Hospitals Association.