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Align to the science

Wednesday March 4, 2020

Dr Richard Yin, Honorary Secretary, Doctors for the Environment Australia

Almost 11 years ago, the Lancet published its seminal report: Managing the health effects of climate change, calling it the biggest global health threat of the 21st century. Despite the ever-worsening predictions over the decade, both of the size and urgency of the problem, the issue has remained for many, a future concern and peripheral to our work as doctors.

But the unprecedented drought conditions and fires in eastern Australia with images of Sydney blanketed in smoke have brought the issue into sharp relief; a possible future is now very much a present reality.

The scale of impacts has surprised many; the issue of prolonged and extreme bushfire smoke exposure not anticipated; the coordination of emergency care in rural communities was left wanting with General Practice not consulted; and we are yet to analyse the full impact on emergency services.

There will be further major health impacts over the next years from the psychological stress – both the immediate trauma as well as the ongoing impacts from loss of income and property and the broader social disruption.

Both tangible and intangible (largely related to social and mental health) costs will run to many billions of dollars.[1]

Much of this was predicted by many groups including the AMA in its own submission in 2013 into an inquiry into Recent trends in and preparedness for extreme weather events.[2]

Western Australia will not be immune from similar events. With a marked drying trend in the south-west of the State since the 1970s, there has been an accompanying increase in fire risk, fire weather and the length of fire seasons. Yet bushfires and droughts are just one of the many threats from climate change. Others include floods and storms, rising sea levels and changes in climate sensitive infectious diseases.

The current drought and bushfires have occurred with just one degree of warming. Further “committed warming” is already locked in from current emissions.

In terms of health and social impacts, adaptation and preparation are clearly paramount. But there are limits to adaptation: we need to avoid the unmanageable as well as manage the now unavoidable.

The 2018 COP24 Special Report on Climate Change and Health [3] frames the Paris Agreement as the biggest global health impact. It was a call to arms for the health sector to lead on this public health emergency.

To keep to “safe limits” (of 1.5°C), our emissions must peak by 2020 and then rapidly reduce by 2030 at a rate of around 7.6 per cent per annum.[4] Yet global emissions continue to rise – Australia’s trajectory over the last few years has flat lined while in WA our emissions are rising driven largely by our LNG industry.

Business as usual will take us to a 4°C world, where a child born today will have their health condemned to being defined by climate change impacts.[5] The only solution to the problem is decarbonisation at rates consistent with the science; this is what we should be demanding.

And if there is failure at the federal level, then the states must take on responsibility for climate action.

Recommendations from the Climate Health WA Inquiry are yet to be released. No doubt there will be an emphasis on sustainability within the health sector. But focusing only on the health sector’s emissions, however laudable, does little to address the policy vacuum, both state and federal, required to reduce our emissions across all sectors of community at rates commensurate with the science-based targets.

On an issue that has become highly politicised, health advocacy needs to be non-partisan and we can do that best by aligning to the science. The science of anthropogenic climate change is not in dispute. That it is a global health emergency is acknowledged by numerous health bodies including the AMA. And this summer, we have witnessed as a nation what climate change might mean for Australia if emissions are not reduced.

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) along with other health groups, support a national climate and health strategy.[6] We call for the Federal Government to declare a climate emergency, introduce legislation in accordance with the science and undertake measures to mitigate and adapt to protect health.

We call on all doctors, medical colleges and the AMA to come together and collectively support us. Our petition page can be found at https://climateemergencynotimeforgames.nationbuilder.com

References available on request.