Introduction by Croakey: On 10 July, the World Meterological Association reported preliminary data suggesting the world just had the hottest week on record – following the hottest June on record, with unprecedented sea surface temperatures and record low Antarctic sea ice extent.
The record-breaking temperatures on land and in the ocean have potentially devastating impacts on ecosystems and the environment, and highlight the far-reaching changes taking place in Earth’s system as a result of human-induced climate change, the New York Times reported on July 11.
Also this week, the New York governor said climate-fuelled disasters such as the recent catastrophic flooding in the United States were “the new normal”.
Meanwhile, as David Gelles reported for the NYT – even as his own house was inundated – Delhi recently recorded its wettest July day in 40 years, Beijing residents flocked to underground air raid shelters to escape the heat, and floods carried away cars in Spain.
We can expect far worse ahead.
Where, then is the commensurate response? Why are we not hearing of emergency meetings of National Cabinet or other agencies to plan, prepare, and review our policies and responses? Where is the national communications campaign to engage communities and help them to prepare for what lies ahead?
Governments need to stop acting as if it’s business as usual, according to medical leader Professor Nick Talley, who yesterday delivered a plenary presentation to #MEDINFO23 in Sydney, the official conference of the Australasian Institute of Digital Health.
“The worst-case scenario, and a real possibility, is societal collapse late this century if we don’t do more,” he writes below.
(Beneath his article is a collection of recent climate news clips).
Nick Talley writes:
When I trained in medicine it was drilled into me in a medical emergency (a hospital code blue), time is the enemy. An early informed and coordinated response saved lives, but dithering was too often deadly.
When learning public health, it was made clear prevention has the greatest impact on saving lives and improving health, rather than treating disease already established.
Yet countries invest much less in prevention than in health are because in prevention, success means the terrible outcomes prevented become invisible. The anti-vax proponents just can’t see all the diseases and deaths prevented by vaccination.
In epidemiology classes I learnt about pandemics and the mathematics of exponential curves; a pandemic may begin with one case and spread very slowly at first until – unless contained – it eventually explodes, like an uncontrolled wildfire, as we all experienced with COVID-19.
Climate change is no different, but we now face a code black (a personal threat) even though we know what to do.
There is a rapidly growing public health emergency we can now see and feel, but many in society – including too many political leaders – still fail to recognise the gravity of the situation, in part because the effects follow an exponential curve that is slow at first.
We are yet to truly experience the multiple compounding disasters (more fires, floods, rises in sea levels, acidification of the oceans, famines, increased infectious diseases, mass migration) predicted by expert modelling to occur later this century if we don’t act now.
The public views on the importance of climate change vary according to surveys, despite expert consensus statements such as the latest 2023 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, which concludes there is no doubt climate change is occurring, is very serious, will have increasing impact, and is human-made.
While I was Editor-in-Chief of The Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), we partnered with The Lancet (one of the worlds’ leading medical journals) to publish an annual countdown on climate change and health in Australia from the experts. They concluded in 2022 while there has been progress, Australia still remains unprepared for the impacts of climate change and is already paying a high price that will only accelerate.
We know excess greenhouse gases are warming the planet. It’s simple and beyond dispute (despite what is espoused by some on Twitter, including ignorant politicians).
Normally, solar radiation absorbed on the earth’s surface is radiated back towards space as long-wave infrared radiation. Carbon dioxide as well as methane and other greenhouse gases are better able to absorb energy at the wavelengths of the radiation coming off the earth’s surface and heading back to space than they are to block the short wavelengths of solar radiation that comes in. We have a blanket of greenhouse gases we don’t want, spewed out mostly by us, increasing every day, destroying our world.
If the planet was cooling (which it definitely is not), it would be unpleasant but human adaption would be more straightforward (and the mortality implications less).
The planet in 2023 has actually experienced its hottest days ever. Adaption to heat is relatively limited before deaths exponentially increase. And it’s not just about rising temperatures.
In Australia we faced catastrophic bushfires in 2019-2020, and now it’s predicted we’ll face these again or worse, possibly this summer.
Not only do bushfires kill, so does the smoke they release that contains tiny (less than 2.5 μm) highly harmful particulate matter (PM2.5). These particles are estimated to contribute to nearly eight percent of total global deaths.
In Australia during the bushfires, where smoke engulfed Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, data suggest hospital admissions, emergency department attendances, ambulance call-outs and consults for lung problems all significantly increased.
The US has felt this too from the Canadian wildfires, a taste of what is to come. Burning coal, transporting coal, mining and disposal of coal is a silent killer, because of the release of air pollutants and most importantly PM2.5 particles.
In a paper in the MJA in 2018, the authors point out current greenhouse gas emissions are highest on the planet in two million years, the current temperatures would be 1.5° C higher except for “cooling” air pollution that blocks incoming solar radiation (such as sulphates), and on present trajectories the planet is heading for a catastrophic temperature increase of 3-4° C.
The implications are grim; not only do we need to go to net zero emissions – we are increasingly likely to need to take greenhouse gases out of our atmosphere to prevent severe outcomes. The problem: the technology to mass extract greenhouse gases is as yet not viable.
In blunt terms, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres is quoted as saying in 2022: “We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5-degree limit agreed in Paris. Some government and business leaders are saying one thing – but doing another. Simply put, they are lying.”
The worst-case scenario, and a real possibility, is societal collapse late this century if we don’t do more.
Calling an end to business as usual
So what can and should YOU do?
The IPCC 2023 report has a list of urgent strategies that deserve adoption now across the world and would make a major difference.
We need to use our collective voices to insist on more rapid change in the private and public sector, and lead by example. If the global health sector were a country, it would be the fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter on the planet. Every hospital and health practice needs to act. I’m proud to say my hospital, the John Hunter Hospital, has ambitious initiatives in place to be carbon and waste neutral by 2030, and the staff love it.
Business as usual is unacceptable. Company boards are paying attention as there is increasing pressure on them to disclose their climate impacts and exposures to risks.
Greenwashing is no longer acceptable, with real legal risks in the near future. We need to further pressure Governments to act at all levels and vote out those who fail to understand the significance of the climate emergency.
Governments in Australia are acting as if it’s business as usual, continuing with current policy settings (including new coal mine approvals), despite knowing with reasonable certainty the next bushfire seasons will be horrendous.
In 1990 Voyager 1 took a photograph of the earth 3.7 billion miles from the sun. It’s a beautiful photo of a tiny pale blue dot. We all live on this blue dot.
“That’s us”, as the scientist Carl Sagan wrote in his book. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone who has ever lived was born on that blue dot in space.
But we are destroying our earth, the science is clear, and we have no replacement home.
Our children and their children will suffer the most (because the effects are exponential then monumental) if we don’t act and act fast on what is clearly now a code black.
So what will you say when your children or grandchildren in the decades to come ask you: “What did YOU do about stopping climate change?”
I continue to hope you will be able to say: “I (we) acted with haste and courage.”
Distinguished Laureate Professor Nicholas J. Talley AC is a gastroenterologist, researcher and medical educator based at the Hunter Medical Research Institute in Newcastle and the John Hunter Hospital. He is also a Fellow of the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine. A past President of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Nick has a long standing interest in public health including the impact of climate change and clean air on health and disease.
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