Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty and former Australian of the Year Professor Fiona Stanley are among more than 180 health professionals and leading health groups who have signed an open letter, warning the federal government must strengthen Australia's weak environment laws to protect health.
The letter warns that a failure to conserve our environment is in effect dismantling our life support systems, exposing humanity to potentially even more deadly pandemics than COVID-19, as well as catastrophic climate change, which fuelled the horrific Black Summer bushfires.
The letter has been released as COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease across the country, and ahead of the review of Australia's Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The review panel's draft report is expected to be released next month.
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'.
"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 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, and 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.
Quote from A/Professor Katherine Barraclough, Board member and Victorian Chair, Doctors for the Environment Australia:
"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."
Quote from Fiona Armstrong, Founder and Executive Director, Climate and Health Alliance:
"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.