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Act on climate change for the sake of the future — Doctors’ orders

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At their annual conference in March, Doctors for the Environment Australia said the debate about whether climate change is real is over — it is now time to act. Carmela Ferraro reports.

IN LIGHT of the IPCC’s report card on the environment and the enormous challenges facing people and planet, it’s reassuring to know that a 2014 CSIRO survey shows more than 80 per cent of Australians think climate change is real.

Curiously, though, on a list of 16 concerns, climate change came 14th — lower than health at number one, the economy, electricity prices and drug problems.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the lead author of the CSIRO survey Dr Zoe Leviston

‘… said the low ranking may reflect people turning off the issue because it had become so politicised, artificially pulling the ranking down.’

Given that environmental heavyweight Dr Tim Flannery has, at several public events I’ve attended, said this is the “critical decade” and right now is the “golden hour” to put the brake on runaway climate change — how exactly do we turn people’s attention to this potential global disaster in the nick of time?

The answer may lie in the CSIRO findings themselves, which listed people’s primary concern as being health. Thus, as a group of U.S. researchers concluded a couple of years ago, framing climate change as a public health issue offered the greatest chance for climate change mitigation.

Framing climate change as a public health issue is in no way misleading — the effects of climate change on health are very real and extremely serious.

Indeed, in 2009, prestigious medical journal the Lancet flagged climate change as ‘the biggest global health threat of the 21st century’ and called on health professionals ‒ whom it acknowledged had (with a few exceptions) come late to the debate ‒ to act.

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) is one health organisation that has since 2001 worked to raise the alarm on the health ramifications of the continued degradation of the environment and climate change, as well as the need to reduce these health impacts through awareness raising and advocacy.

DEA’s work is clearly resonating with the Australian medical profession — GPs, surgeons, paediatricians, anaesthetists and so on. DEA’s conference in Melbourne on March 22-23 attracted more than four times the number of doctors and medical students than it did in the previous year, while its membership has doubled in just five years.

Says DEA spokesperson Dr Eugenie Kayak — a Melbourne based anaesthetist with a young family:

“DEA is preventative health in action.

Dr Kayak says health professionals have an obligation to be a voice of science and reason:

“Health professionals have a responsibility to society, and the community needs a non-political, rational voice based on science and impacts to raise awareness about the effects of climate change on the ecosystem.”

Other DEA spokespersons include the likes of Dr Kingsley Faulkner, who is a Member of Order of Australia, as well as a former president of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and chairman of the Australian Council on Smoking and Health; while DEA’s advisory Scientific Committee lists Nobel Prize winner Professor Peter Doherty, the legendary Sir Gus Nossal, Professor David de Kretser and many more.

Dr Tim Flannery: this is the "critical decade".

DEA’s standing can also be seen from the calibre of the speakers at this year’s Conference — including Environment Minister Greg Hunt, Opposition environment spokesperson Mark Butler, Greens’ Senator Dr Richard Di Natale, as well as Dr Tim Flannery (pictured above), Professor Ross GarnautProfessor David Griggs and a host of other eminent experts.

This heavy-duty clout can help to shift climate change from the bottom of the public’s agenda to the top — where it belongs as matter of urgency.

Doctors are both highly respected and have the skills to speak authoritatively about health matters of concern to the community. A 2013 Roy Morgan poll on the most highly regarded professions placed doctors at 88 per cent, second only to nurses at 90 per cent. Federal MPs, by contrast, received just 14 per cent approval.

DEA’s interests are varied. It’s currently fighting the ills of unconventional gas and fossil fuels; highlighting the benefits of renewables, forests and biodiversity; along with urging divestment.

Despite the many powerful vested interests they’re challenging, DEA seems unafraid of ruffling feathers. Dr Kayak says DEA is a fiercely politically independent organisation supported almost entirely on memberships, with occasional one-off funding from philanthropic groups. She says DEA stands firmly with the community on health issues that are associated with climate change and fossil fuels.

Attendees at the DEA conference in March.

Among its many achievements, Dr Kayak points to DEA’s 2012 VCAT challenge, alongside organisations such as Environment Victoria, against a Dual Gas proposal for a brown coal-fired power station, which eventually resulted in the company withdrawing the project. Dr Kayak says that this was the first time a medical organisation has challenged the EPA on its granting of a permit to a coal power plant.

When asked whether there is a danger the public might see DEA as a radical organisation in what is generally thought of as a conservative profession, perhaps thereby undermining its influence, Dr Kayak replied that doctors have a history of activism:

“Doctors have a history of involvement, such as the public battle with tobacco.

“DEA prides itself that its members are very conservative, and we don’t consider ourselves as a left organisation. If we’re seen as radical, it’s because of a lack of education about where we’re heading in 2050 and the importance this will have on health.”

Speakers at the DEA Conference painted a frightening dystopia of what the middle of the century might look like if we fail to act immediately: spikes in respiratory and cardiovascular diseases; infectious diseases (salmonella, food-poisoning, mosquito-borne dengue and Ross River viruses, cholera); food scarcity, because of lower farm yields; a variety of cancers; mental health; social disharmony; and a health system unable to cope with extreme climate events.

Some of the experts said we are already seeing some of these effects.

DEA conference group photo.

Victorian Australian Medical Association president Dr Stephen Parnis said in his presentation to the Conference that, during Melbourne’s January heatwave, where there were four days of 40 degrees plus temperature, the death rate was twice the average.

As we spoke away from the buzzing masses of doctors and medical students in the main foyer of the Conference, Dr Kayak stressed to me that the time for debating climate change is over:

“The debate about whether climate change is real is over and our focus now is preventative.

“Doctors are aptly placed to put the message out there that we have to slow that train (being runaway climate change) from running ahead and crashing — for the sake of our future.”

A different tone was presented by Environment Minister Greg Hunt during his presentation to the DEA Conference.

Hunt compared solving climate change to the cholera epidemics of the 19th century and the health issues associated with horse poo on the streets, saying that these too were “existential crises” that were not as intractable as people believed at the time.

We can only hope and pray he is right.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt compared climate change to horse poo.

You can follow Carmela Ferraro on Twitter @carmela_ferraro.

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John Graham's art is available for purchase by emailing editor@independentaustralia.net. See a gallery of John's political art on his Cartoons and Caricatures Facebook page.

 
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