Doctors call for action from front lines of climate change

Intro

Medical organisations from around the world have come together to call for meaningful and urgent action on climate change, saying unequivocal and increasingly severe climate impacts on human health makes a treaty agreed in Paris this December fundamentally a public health treaty. Coinciding with a World Health Organisation call to action and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ global day of action, the Global Climate and Health Alliance launched the Our Climate, Our Health campaign, which calls on healthcare institutions to step up for climate and health over the next five years. One of the most visible health impacts, air pollution, is already killing 3.3 million people annually. Business as usual could not only double this figure, but also result in more extreme weather events that threaten life and limb; changes to infectious disease patterns, increase malnutrition as droughts reduce water availability, crop yields and nutritional value; and tear at social fabrics via growing mental health impacts. Fortunately, strong action on climate change remains win win, as its benefits for human health, the environment and the global economy are all huge.

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Key Points

  • Climate change is fundamentally a human health issue as it will impact the health and safety of billions around the world. From heat-waves, floods and other extreme weather events; to outbreaks of infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue and cholera; to malnutrition, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases caused by environmental pollution; to mental health issues as climate impacts stress communities – the health complications of climate change are so vast it is fair to say everyone on earth could be touched.
  • Prevention is better than the cure. Health professionals are on the front lines of climate impacts, and world leaders can ensure those lines are not as extreme as they could be. Climate action is a no-brainer that offers the “greatest global health opportunity of the 21st Century”. Many climate actions are “no-regret” policies, and tackling climate change will reduce ill health, enhance resilience, alleviate poverty and address inequality without the drawbacks of historical development pathways based on dirty, outdated fossil fuels.
  • The environmental and economic benefits of climate action are clear, but the health and safety implications of action are priceless. The Lancet has found that inaction will negate 50 years of health gains. On the other hand: making the global clean economic transition not only has proven economic benefits and massive savings from avoided health costs, but cleaner air and water, and safer, healthier societies will result in incalculable benefits for billions of people.

Background

Health professionals know better than most that climate change is already taking a heavy toll, and it is hitting the world’s poorest first and hardest. As with farmers, firefighters and other personnel on the front lines of climate change, health professionals are standing up to pressure leaders for ambitious action to keep the world below the agreed red line of 2DegC of warming.

With current estimates noting that we will overshoot the 2DegC guardrail and put countless lives at risk, the World Health Organisation has issued a strong call to action; the Royal Australasian College of Physicians has launched a global day of action; and the Global Climate and Health Alliance has kicked off a campaign titled Our Climate, Our Health, which calls on healthcare institutions to step up their efforts to protect climate and health over the next five years.

Such actions to pressure governments for real change are just the beginning. Visible health impacts such as air pollution – already killing 3.3 million people annually (more than HIV and malaria combined) – may offer a salient reminder of the dangers of fossil fuels to human health; but extreme weather events such as prolonged droughts, ferocious storms and unprecedented floods are also increasingly being linked to climate change, and their impact on health is a no brainer.  

Of course, the risks to health from climate change extend beyond physical impacts from extreme storms. Changes to disease patterns put more people at risk of deadly infections; malnutrition increases as droughts reduce water availability, lower crop yields and reduced crop nutritional value; and oft-forgotten and ignored mental health impacts increase as stresses from climate troubles tear at social fabrics.

While inaction on climate could negate 50 years of health gains, strong action remains win win, as its benefits for human health, the environment and the world economy are all huge. Climate action is the greatest health opportunity in the 21st century, and one that cuts across all national borders.

Health professionals around the world are calling for action because they see first hand the severity of climate change, they know its impact on health is both unequivocal and increasing, and as such any treaty agreed in Paris this December is fundamentally a public health treaty.

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Key Quotes

  • “Climate change is happening now, and we’re seeing the impact on our health every day, in all regions of the world. As health professionals, we have a duty to stop the impacts of climate change. While it may seem outside our scope of work, we are at the front line in caring for the health of current and future generations. We need to make sure the world knows the Paris treaty is a public health treaty.” – WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, Dr Maria Neira
  • “The evidence is overwhelming: climate change endangers human health. Solutions exist and we need to act decisively to change this trajectory.” – WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan
  • “About six percent of all global deaths each year occur prematurely due to exposure to ambient air pollution. This number is higher than most experts would have expected, say, ten years ago.” – University of North Carolina environmental sciences professor, Jason West
  • “We’ve had two unusually hot years, and now we’ve got a very strong El Niño event, so I think it would be fair to say, unfortunately, that we’re in uncharted waters. What we’ve seen is somewhat unprecedented and climate change is increasingly going to put us in that position. We’ve seen an unprecedented run of extreme and erratic weather, which has had very real impacts. Of course, those impacts are felt first and hardest by the world’s poorest communities, but these countries are also the least responsible for climate change. They’ve contributed negligibly to global greenhouse emissions. [I]t drives home the fact that climate change affects us all; it affects poorer countries first and hardest, but we have a responsibility as a wealthy, developed nation to be both doing far more to reduce our own emissions, but also to be providing greater support with adaptation and resilience-building to poorer countries.” – Oxfam Australia’s climate change policy advisor, Dr Simon Bradshaw
  • “The regularity with which we see food insecurity in Africa has left many people apathetic. But the crisis currently facing millions of families is not inevitable and should not be acceptable. There are many things that we can do to stop this food crisis… but we need international support to make this happen.” – IFRC acting regional representative in Southern Africa, Michael Charles

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