Malcolm Turnbull drew upon several health and medical analogies in his recent, widely-reported speech on climate change, in which he urged respect for science, and called for action to prevent the “enormous injustice” facing the world’s poorest people.
“… the people in the world who will suffer the most cruelly will be the poorest and the people who have contributed the least to the problem,” he said.
Turnbull’s health references included:
• Ignoring the science of climate change is like “ignoring the advice of your doctor to give up smoking and lose 10 kilos on the basis that somebody down the pub told you their uncle Ernie ate three pies a day and smoked a packet of cigarettes and lived to 95. Now that is how stupid it is and we have to get real about supporting and responsibly accepting the science.”
• “Would you allow yourself, your own body to be operated on by some medical theory that you picked up on the website or would you seek to get the most highly respected specialist in the field to operate on you? We all know what the answer is. That’s what we do with our own bodies. What we’re talking about now is the future and the health of the planet.”
• “Some people would say, I trust that most would not, that as we have a vested interest in coal being burned, we should oppose action on climate change and, rather like the tobacco companies who sought to discredit the connection between smoking and lung cancer, muddy the waters on climate science in order to prolong the export billions from coal mining.”
Melanie Lowe, one of a number of health professionals on the program, writes below about some shared ground between obesity and climate change.
What do climate change and obesity have in common?
Melanie Lowe writes:
Obesity and climate change are two of the greatest public health challenges facing Australia.
Over 60 percent of adults and 25 percent of children are overweight or obese, with high body mass being a major risk factor for conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
At the same time, the health effects of climate change are predicted to be extensive. These include increased illness and mortality from severe heat waves and other extreme weather events, an increase in allergenic pollens and the range and seasonality of mosquito-born infections such as dengue fever, fresh water and food shortages and increased rates of food and water-borne disease.
Whilst obesity and climate change may appear to be unrelated, there is a growing recognition that these are actually closely connected problems, having some shared causes and solutions.
There are three shared determinants of obesity and climate change.
The first is society’s dependence on emissions-intensive technologies which reduce human effort. Cars, computers, television and domestic labour-saving devices contribute to sedentary lifestyles by reducing energy expenditure during travel, work, domestic tasks and leisure time. Such devices are also major sources of green-house gas (GHG) emissions as they are powered by fossil fuels.
Second, today’s industrial food system increases consumption of foods that are both unhealthy and emissions-intensive. The production of all food entails some GHG emissions. However, the most fattening foods, such as animal products and highly-processed, energy-dense foods are also the most emissions-intensive.
The third shared cause of obesity and climate change is the over-emphasis on economic growth within the global economic system. The resulting requirement for ever-increasing production and consumption drives the over-consumption of food and technology which results in weight gain and GHG emissions.
By targeting these shared causes, obesity and climate change can be tackled simultaneously. Policies with potential co-benefits fit within three broad categories.
The first of these comprises strategies to replace the use of emissions-intensive, effort-saving devices with physical activity.
Replacing car use with active transport such as walking, cycling or pubic transport is arguably the most promising policy lever. Active transport options should be made more attractive, for instance by investing in cycling and public transport infrastructure, and improving urban design. At the same time driving should be made less attractive, for example by introducing congestion charges in cities, increasing the fuel excise and reducing car parking spaces.
Second, a range of policies could improve diets whilst simultaneously reducing emissions from the food system. For example, governments could regulate the marketing of energy-dense, highly-processed foods, subsidise healthy, low-emissions food and tax unhealthy food, introduce mandatory labelling of food products based on their health and environmental impacts, and encourage urban agriculture.
Third, a range of macroeconomic reforms could improve technology use and the food system, as well as reduce GHG emissions from the broader economy. Economic growth needs to be de-emphasised as a policy objective, and working hours and income inequality within society should be reduced in order to slow the treadmill of production and consumption.
Policies such as the recently-proposed carbon tax or regulation of GHG emissions also have the potential to reduce consumption of emissions-intensive and obesity-causing technologies and foodstuffs by making them less affordable relative to healthy, low-emissions options.
Given the complexity of both problems, implementing any single policy in isolation is unlikely to deliver sufficient change. Instead, a range of complementary interventions across multiple sectors is required. This approach could have significant benefits for the environment as well as two of our biggest public health challenges.
By integrating public health and environmental agendas, these policies may hold the key to achieving effective action on climate change and obesity in Australia.