A key priority for the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation is advocating for environmental sustainability in the wake of the occurring climate crisis. The union argues this is pivotal not only for the planet but the state of community health and healthcare systems at large.
One of the ways the union is taking action is through its membership with the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA), which according to Fiona Armstrong, founder and director of the Alliance, is “a coalition of health groups working together to achieve effective action on climate change.”
Speaking with Ms Armstrong and ANMF’s Federal representative on the Alliance, Professional Officer Tara Nipe, the ANMJ reveals the vital role CAHA plays in addressing climate change and how pivotal sustainable practices are to health at large.
Q: How did CAHA form?
As Ms Armstrong says, the rationale for starting the Climate and Health Alliance came from her success representing the ANMF as part of the Australian Healthcare Reform Alliance, an advocacy coalition she describes as “instrumental” in adopting significant health reforms by the Rudd government in 2007.
“It was becoming clear to me that if we didn’t act on climate change, that no amount of health reform would save us,” Ms Armstrong says.
“Having had that experience of a… successful advocacy coalition, I wanted to explore the idea for setting up a coalition of organisations to work together on climate change.”
Eventually, CAHA came into existence after a meeting of more than 30 health organisations in Melbourne in 2010.
The Alliance, which has now adopted a range of public-facing activities to achieve its goals, comprises of 65 organisations, along with hundreds of individuals members. These organisations include the ANMF Federal Office, the Queensland Nurses and Midwives Union (QNMU) and NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association (NSWNMA), other trade unions, peak bodies, professional associations, university departments, providers and advocacy groups.
Q: What does CAHA seek to do concerning public advocacy?
CAHA hosts an annual seminar or symposium that seeks to address its aims across policy, advocacy, and research. The education and input of member organisations are key to those activities.
It also runs an annual forum to improve sustainability practices and the carbon footprint within Australian healthcare, with more than 1,700 individual hospitals and health services now engaged across Australia and New Zealand as part of that process.
In addition, CAHA also engages in federal political advocacy, recently lobbying “parliamentarians across the political spectrum” as part of an extensive set of meetings at Parliament House in Canberra.
Q: Where does the ANMF sit with CAHA, and what role does it play within the organisation?
According to ANMF Federal Professional Officer Tara Nipe, who represents the ANMF at CAHA meetings, the union plays a key role in ensuring that members’ experiences and voices are heard as part of the coalition’s decision-making process.
For example, the ANMF worked on a recent CAHA project, which projected varied future scenarios for healthcare based on the speed of the country’s climate response, where the frontline experiences of nurses and midwives were included.
“Our members were affected by the [Summer 2019-20] bushfires that seemed so long ago, and yet people are still dealing with the aftermath,” Ms Nipe says.
Information and direction from CAHA also helps influences the direction of ANMF member engagement, research, policy and other projects the union undertakes, Ms Nipe says.
“I think that two-way flow of information is really important,” Ms Nipe explains, adding that the broad coalition allows access to a range of views and strategies that other health groups are already using to address climate change, noting that “we don’t have to reinvent the wheel”.
Q: Why is it important that ANMF be involved in climate-related advocacy?
As Ms Nipe explains, while climate action is a key part of the ANMF’s agenda, by being part of a broader coalition of voices and perspective, the reach of the ANMF’s membership to influence health outcomes about climate change is greatly expanded.
“We can still be perceived as having too narrow a focus because, although we make up the majority of the health care workforce, we’re only representing nurses, midwives and assistants in nursing, whereas if we also have the backing of… other voices that are saying the same thing, then I think that amplifies our argument.”
Significantly, Ms Nipe says it is important nurses and midwives realise that although the impact of climate change can seem secondary to workplace issues members face daily, its effect can influence decisions made in health care environments.
“The reason why it’s important is two-fold,” Ms Nipe explains, pointing separately to the effects of heat and smoke on both patients and the healthcare work environment as a result of the 2019-20 bushfire season.
“Almost every nurse and midwife in Australia has now had firsthand experience of the impact of that… The fact that we had so many things that were unprecedented in the last [major] bushfire season is not a coincidence.”
Q: What else can ANMF members do to address environmental and public health issues?
While COVID-19 understandably garnered the headlines across 2020, Both Ms Nipe and Ms Armstrong believes there are plenty of ways for ANMF members to stay engaged with the climate crisis in small and big ways.
“We get to see the effects first hand of climate change on health,” Ms Nipe says,
Observing those health impacts on patients, Ms Nipe argues that it puts nurses and midwives in a position to advocate for big picture interventions like affordable housing or better insulation standards needed to protect the community from harm.
Ms Armstrong also acknowledged the role that individual ANMF members can play in encouraging climate action.
“Trade union members, as individuals… can play an incredibly important role in supporting their unions to be leaders in this space and to take action themselves in their own communities and set an example for others.”
More information on CAHA can be found here.