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On climate change and human survival: this is an emergency (and how health professionals might respond)

“Climate change could make humans extinct warns health expert” – this is a headline ahead of today’s launch of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Impacts volume of the Fifth Assessment Report.

This headline represents news that is also not news. We know this. We have been told and told. Again and again.

It’s just that for a whole host of reasons, we have not been listening. It’s too painful, it’s too confronting, it’s easier to focus on more immediate and everyday problems, there is too much disinformation, and too many powerful interests that don’t want us to listen, let alone to act.

But the time is well past for heads in the sand or wallowing in grief.

A powerful editorial in the latest edition of the BMJ, titled “Climate change and human survival” (authors include the editor in chief of the journal and president of the British Medical Association), states:

“This is an emergency. Immediate and transformative action is needed at every level: individual, local, and national; personal, political, and financial. Countries must set aside differences and work together as a global community for the common good, and in a way that is equitable and sensitive to particular challenges of the poorest countries and most vulnerable communities.

What we all do matters, not least in how it influences others. Those who profess to care for the health of people perhaps have the greatest responsibility to act. And there are signs of action being taken. Within the health system, organisations and health facilities are reducing their carbon footprint. Barts Health NHS Trust has, for example, reduced its energy bill by 43% since 2009. The president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, himself a public health physician, has called for divestment from fossil fuels and investment in green energy. We should all respond.”

The editorial emphasises the health benefits of acting against climate change, noting that more active forms of transport and the consumption of less red meat will cut death and illness from cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. Less air pollution will cut the global burden of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer, and heart disease.

It says the IPCC has incorporated this new understanding into its latest report on impacts, and that this message is likely to flow into the World Health Organization’s plans for action, to be discussed at its climate conference in August.

The threats of climate change to health and the relatively localised health “co-benefits” from reducing greenhouse emissions (mitigation) are also reviewed in a timely article at The Conversation by Professor Tony McMichael, Professor Colin Butler and Professor Helen Berry, who contributed to the health chapter in the new IPCC report.

They note, for example, that reducing emissions of methane and black carbon, for example, may avoid more than two million deaths per year, and that other mitigation actions are likely to improve physical health, social connectedness and mental health.

If you are working in the health sector and not making some contribution – whether through advocacy, reforming your organisation/institution/service’s practices, or your own personal contributions – then perhaps consider the BMJ editorial’s urgings to health professionals:

“Firstly, we should push our own organisations (universities, hospitals, primary care providers, medical societies, drug and device companies) to divest from fossil fuel industries completely and as quickly as possible, reinvest in renewable energy sources, and move to “renewable” energy suppliers.

Secondly, we should each use whatever influence we have to change the minds and behaviour of others who are in positions of influence.

Thirdly, we need to build an alliance of medical and other health professionals to speak clearly to the public, the media, governments, and intergovernmental bodies to provide a strong and unified message—that climate change is real and is the result of human activity; that it is already affecting people around the world and is the greatest current threat to human health and survival; and that there are many positive and practical things we can do systematically and at scale to avert its worst effects.

If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change and bequeath a sustainable planet worth living on, we must push, as individuals and as a profession, for a transformed, sustainable, and fair world.”

Meanwhile, I encourage you to also read this recent article by Peter Burdon, a lecturer in law at the University of Adelaide. He writes powerfully about the grief and emotion that many are experiencing on their own personal climate change journeys, and urges collective action:

“There is no ‘one right way’ to grieve but if you have strong networks of support the experience can be liberating and even enriching. Grieving can help us detach from our old vision and expectations for the future and adjust to a new reality. We all have capacity to readjust and in fact many of us have experienced something similar after a loved one dies or a relationship unexpectedly ends.

Following this, it is well documented that a healthy and effective response to grief is to join with others and act. Isolation is disempowering and I do not think there is anything to be gained by capitulating.

As the cellist Pablo Casals said: “The situation is hopeless; we must now take the next step.” Finding meaning in adverse circumstances is an enduring human quality and one that we need to collectively summon again.

Even if it is too late to prevent a 2°C rise in temperature there is still much we can do, and any success in reducing emissions will greatly improve the survival odds of communities around the world.

To have even a modest chance of avoiding this scenario all of us need to become politically active. To quote academic Clive Hamilton, “we need a new environmental radicalism made up of those willing to put their bodies on the line.”

And finally, to borrow from the words of public health advocate Professor Fiona Stanley, who was borrowing from poet Drew Dellinger, “What did you do when the earth was unravelling…
(I have a feeling this quote is going to keep reappearing at Croakey….)

 

 

 

 

Comments 2

  1. Roger Clifton says:

    The pious statements by BMJ reek of insincerity. These well-educated people know that the cure for ongoing global carbon emissions is to replace carbon fuel world-wide. The word needed is “replace”, not “reduce”. That is not a high level concept that stupid people like you and me cannot understand. How come BMJ lacks the moral spine to say it?

    Similarly BMJ and colleagues know darn well that the opposite of “carbon” is “non-carbon”, not “renewables”. So again, we should ask, why do they not call a spade a spade?

    The answer is in their audience, it is we who are not really willing to make the effort required to avert disaster for our descendants,. We are far more interested in making excuses for our inaction.

    So by all means dear friends, keep using those weasel words, “reduction of emissions”, “renewable energy”, “fuel efficiency”, natural gas” etc. Let’s pretend to each other that we will not be held to account by our descendants. We can always plead, “we tried, we really tried, we really really tried. You can’t blame us if the rabbit’s foot didn’t work.” But they can, and they will.

  2. graybul says:

    In a nutshell Roger! Concise, direct expression. A call of FIRE! . . rather than, ‘A thermal event is occurring’. A belief in a Climate Change ‘Emergency’ requires more than equivocation if world is to avoid fall-out from a 2*+ rise in temperature.

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Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
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Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
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AIDA Conference 2014
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National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
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Population Health Congress 2015
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