QUESTION: Public health impacts of climate change

During Question Time, Mark asked the Minister for Health and Wellbeing whether he agreed that climate change is greatest threat to health this century and what actions he or the Department of Health are taking to prevent climate change getting worse and further harming the health of South Australians. 

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: Around Australia last week, tens of thousands of students went on strike from school demanding greater action from governments and politicians over climate change. The students' demands included a rapid phase-out of current fossil fuel use and a stop to all new fossil fuel projects, including the Adani coal mine in Queensland and drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight.

One of the key messages from the students was that climate change was a very real threat to health, both public and private. In fact, the concerns of the students were backed up by the Health Services Union, which issued a statement in support of the students' strike. National HSU secretary, Lloyd Williams, said:

"Health professionals know that climate change is the greatest threat to health this century. Immediate action to reduce the impact of climate change is needed to protect and improve public health.

Climate change will have serious consequences for our public health system. This includes our ability to respond to increasing frequency of extreme weather events, the threat to the availability and quality of food and water, and the resultant mental health impacts.

Workers only strike as a last option, to get the attention of their bosses, to get fair pay or a safe workplace. Likewise, you the students of Australia are taking this action as a rallying cry to politicians to stop, listen, and act on our climate crisis.

You are our future, don't stop standing up for what you believe in."

My questions to the minister are:

1. As Minister for Health and Wellbeing, do you agree with the striking students and the HSU that climate change is the greatest threat to health this century?

2. What actions are you or your department taking to prevent climate change getting worse and further harming the health of South Australians?

The PRESIDENT: Minister.

Members interjecting:

The Hon. S.G. WADE (Minister for Health and Wellbeing): Sorry, I thought I had the call.

Members interjecting:

The PRESIDENT: I hope this is all getting into Hansard, you two, because the South Australian public would like to hear from the minister, as would the President and the person who asked the question, the Hon. Mr Parnell. I wish the minister to be heard in silence. Minister, respond.

The Hon. S.G. WADE: I thank the honourable member for his question. I have no doubt that climate change is affecting health. I have already spoken about that in this house in recent weeks. The extreme heat event earlier this year, in my view, resulted in one of the most severe hospital demand events that we have had. The recent long hot spell again led to a significant increase in presentations.

What I am told by clinicians is that it is often the aggravation of underlying complex or chronic conditions, and that is particularly true of elderly people. That is why we have an extreme heat event policy within SA Health. I had cause to highlight the Labor Party's ignorance of its own policy; it introduced the policy in 2016, which clearly says that a response to an extreme heat event includes reducing activity in hospitals so that the hospitals can cope.

I think one of the things that SA health will be doing as a result of the two significant heat events we have had this year is to look at, shall we say, the days after the heat event. What we observed, in in my view, was that people were avoiding presenting to the hospital on the day of the heat event—in other words saying, 'I'll just cope at home because I don't want to go outside in such significant heat,' but in the following days when the heat was less threatening they would go out. So we had increased presentations after the heat event itself.

I have no doubt that we need, in our planning, to make sure that our hospitals cope with all of the external factors that impact on them, and that includes extreme heat events that may arise through climate change. There is no doubt that the environment, in its broadest sense, has a very significant impact on the health and wellbeing of all South Australians, and we need to account for climate change as part of that process.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: Thank you. I thank the minister for his answer, which related to adaptation to climate change when my question of him was: 'What actions are he or his department taking to prevent climate change getting worse rather than simply responding to it after it has happened?'

The Hon. S.G. WADE: Is there a question?

The PRESIDENT: Take it as a question.

The Hon. S.G. WADE: I would be open to be educated. I am not aware of any factors that Health can take to prevent climate change.