DESPITE A SLOWING of emissions globally during the pandemic, it is expected by scientists that they will bounce back quickly when economies return to normal. The implications for Australia of a heating climate should now be clear to all after the ongoing drought and the devastating heatwaves and bushfires of last summer — a harbinger of things to come.
Australia is particularly vulnerable to some of the worst impacts of climate change with extreme heat, drought, drying rivers, coastal erosion and changing patterns of disease, threatening health, livelihoods and the social fabric. The harm to human health from these impacts has been described by the Australian Medical Association and other major medical institutions as a health emergency.
While paying lip service to the urgency and science underpinning the Paris Agreement to keep average global temperatures to below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial times, Australia is embarking zealously on a course to promote and profit from the export and use of fossil fuels, most recently with calls for a gas-led recovery.
Medical group Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) has this week launched a video message, warning that a gas-led pandemic economic recovery would be hazardous to health and cost lives. DEA is urging the public to add their voice to the video message – aimed at Prime Minister Scott Morrison – via an online petition.
Gas is being pushed as a transition fuel which might have been an acceptable position 20 years ago but is no longer tenable. Methane, 84 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas over a 20-year time frame, is rising steeply and scientists now know that a major source of this methane is the oil and gas industry.
Australia’s huge production and export of LNG is not only driving up emissions in Australia but overseas. Producing more carbon dioxide and methane, now at levels not seen in a million years, is fuelling the climate crisis which is also a medical emergency. The argument that gas is a transition fuel is disingenuous. It’s like giving a diabetic concentrated sugar to deal with their disease.
Unconventional gas extraction is also causing health concerns in local communities. There is now a large body of evidence from the U.S. which dispels the myth of “clean” gas. Unconventional gas (fracking) extraction is associated with pollution of air, soil and water and where that is close to communities, potential health problems.
Some pollutants from the industry, such as benzene are known carcinogens, while for others there is no long-term data. A range of health effects, including respiratory and sinus problems have been linked to proximity to gas wells, as have congenital defects of the heart and nervous system.
At the heart of this obsession with gas is the mindset of “more”.
More energy, more growth, more population, more expansion of the GDP pays homage to the “markets”. But “more” is a giant Ponzi scheme which is doomed to end in tears because we are already at the planetary boundaries beyond which lies chaos for nature and for us as a species. Victims of our success, we have reached the limits for the land, the oceans, the rivers and the atmosphere, imagining that it can continue forever. In short, we are dismantling our life support systems for short-term profits.
It is not that corporations are by nature evil, although some resource companies have behaved dishonestly and criminally. Many of us know someone working in coal, oil or gas — the industries which power our economies of “more”. The CEOs of these companies have an overriding purpose in mind which is to make profit for the shareholders. No amount of greenwashing can change that and CEOs who fail to do that don’t last long.
They should not, however, be in the business of formulating government policy, nor should they be exerting influence on government. However, recent developments have shown that that is what is happening and with some success. There are concerns that the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC), set up by the Morrison Government to lead its economic response to the pandemic, is advocating for an expansion of the gas industry while featuring members with links to oil and gas companies.
It has been accepted science for decades that the world is warming and that humans are causing it.
Renewable energy technologies are booming and are readily available to us. Australia is blessed with the best wind and solar conditions to take full advantage of these cheap energies. Furthermore, they will create up to three times as many jobs as those in the fossil fuel sector.
Despite the enormous advantages offered by clean energy, more fossil fuels are being burnt than ever before. More harm than good is the result and we are now in the age of consequences.
There is a long-standing principle in medicine of primum non nocere — or “first, do no harm”. It conveys the idea that a treatment for a patient should not be carried out if it is likely to do more harm than good. Doctors who flout this unwritten rule soon attract the opprobrium of their colleagues or are deregistered.
Our politicians, too, must be held to account for their decisions.
To let our political leaders know you that you want them to #TurnOffTheGas for our health’s sake, please add your voice here.
Dr Ingo Weber is a qualified rural GP who took up anaesthetics whilst overseas and now works as a full-time anaesthetist at the Lyell McEwin Hospital. He lectures at both South Australian medical schools on the health impacts of climate change.
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