Issue 35 / 19 September 2011

THE second decade of the 21st century presents Australia with a series of challenges and opportunities. A changing demographic, an increasingly globalised world and the rising impact of climate change on health emerge as drivers for change.

In the 1950s, Sir Richard Doll’s life work and research revealed the harmful effects of tobacco smoke on our lungs. Over time, the evidence base developed, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that global prevalence of tobacco use began to seriously decline. A quick look back through the history books reveals it was around that time that the health care profession engaged with the debate and joined with anti-tobacco groups to help protect the public’s health.

Such engagement in health policy and promotion represented a shift in thinking, where health care workers no longer just fought established disease, but actively tackled the upstream determinants of health. It was their ability to effectively communicate to the public that smoking was both harmful and addictive that determined the successes we see today.

Climate change poses a very real threat to Australia’s health, seen in the predicted spread of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events, and a number of indirect affects such as a rise in mental illness.

This presents Australia’s health profession with a call to action to communicate the link between science and policy.

Health adds a powerful moral and economic message to the climate change debate — without bold action on climate change, the impact on Australia’s health will be devastating. And if that’s not enough, consider that mitigation provides a series of co-benefits to health, where many initiatives to benefit the environment are simultaneously good for public health.

In 2009, The Lancet published research highlighting health co-benefits from four key emissions sectors: household energy; urban land transport; low-carbon electricity; and food and agriculture. These co-benefits provide a strong argument for change for both the public and for policymakers, and these arguments are ones the medical profession is best positioned to present.

For instance, if policymakers and city planners demand that our communities be built in a way that encourages the use of bicycles and public transport, we will see improvements in obesity rates and decreases in motor vehicle accidents. Such initiatives will also significantly reduce our environmental impact.

Besides the health and environmental benefits, there is an economic argument for introducing these initiatives. Recent European data shows that the savings from improved population health will offset the costs of climate change mitigation by as much as two-thirds.

National discussion about climate change should be more focused on the opportunity to work towards improved public health, while future-proofing our economies with green markets and protecting our natural environments.

As we did in the 1970s with the anti-tobacco lobby, today the health profession must play an essential role in communicating this message to reframe the debate on climate change.

Nicolas Watts is the global health officer with the Australian Medical Students Association.

Posted 19 September 2011

This week the MJA features articles looking at the health impacts of climate change.

Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

14 thoughts on “Nicholas Watts: Taking the lead on climate change

  1. RayT says:

    PS: Sorry about the spelling errors/typos above, and the omitted “NOT” in “would … let their families eat eggs”. I should not rush things, and should re-read before submitting – but I have computer to re-build today…

  2. RayT says:

    Sue, I can and do analyse the methodology of climate scientists, but then I originally planned to be a Physicist so my orientation is not purely medicine. (I could also build an atomic bomb now had I the need.) I also disagreed with the majority opinion of Cardiologist in the 1980s who would let their families eat eggs because of the Cholesterol content. I’ve been proved right their. We should never accept the opinions of authorities blindly. To much “climate science” is based on short term data – since the Little Ice Age began in about 1100AD. (It ended about 1890 when meteorological data recording began.)

  3. James says:

    Good onya Nick!
    It’s a shame we have some clinicians following their political ideologies on this matter rather than following peer reviewed evidence.
    I hope these clinicians don’t make clinical decisions in the same way!
    As a profession of science ourselves we should be supporting our scientific colleagues, who are peer-reviewed experts in climate science, and discourage the scientist-bashing which is going on at the moment. I wonder if the political attacks were this severe when the world was declared round?

  4. concerned about politically correct repercussions says:

    The overwhelming weight of economic evidence strongly suggests that it is not worth instigating the carbon tax. Climate scientists are not health experts and climate scientists are not economists. The evidence from the over-arching analysis is that carbon abatement is a non-starter. The question is what to do about global warming. It is no use talking about what climate scientists think. What makes people on this site question the expert, Nobel Prize-winning economists from the Copenhagen Consensus?
    Malcolm B made excellent points. I recommend that people investigate the prevalence of vector borne disease each side of the Texas-Mexico border; same temperature, different economic conditions.
    People in the future will be far better off than we are today. Even Nick Stern agrees with that when you read the fine print. Why take economic resources from today’s less well off to give to future generations that will be much better off? That is nothing more than reverse Robin Hoodism.

  5. Lennert Veerman says:

    It is disappointing to see people questioning whether CO2 is the cause of global warming even on a site like this. Even here, denialism undermines public health (
    But I guess this is an open site, and simply mentioning “climate change” or “global warming” probably triggers an automatic response in some quarters.
    At any rate, I commend Nicholas and AMSA for taking the science seriously. Well done. For evil to prevail it is enough for the good to remain silent. We must speak up.

  6. Sue Ieraci says:

    Here is something I find paradoxical in this debate: most of us, who are trained and experienced in the practise of medicine, find it frustrating when lay people try to claim that their own (untrained) logical judgment beats our knowledge and training (take the anti-vaccinationists, for example).
    Why, then, do we question the accepted wisdom of the climate scientists and try to substitute our own opinions, or even our own reading?
    Personally, I have to work hard to keep up my understanding of the medical literature within my own specialty – looking at things like appropriate powering of studies, confounders and biases, appropriate data collection and analysis. So how many of us can really evaluate the climate science literature?

  7. Bruni Brewin says:

    It seems to me that we had an ‘ice age’, we had the ‘dark ages’ all at a time there was not one iota of human intervention. Science is the perception of the scientist based on his calculations, which have often been overturned some years later. My qualm is that the globe is facing a recession and that whilst it would be prudent to start activating a cleaner future, however I agree with Dr Arc that “Taxing so called heavy polluters and subsidising the public for increased costs for electricity & gas, is Socialism by stealth…a redistribution of wealth. Ultimately, we will all be poorer and worse off.” Companies will simply take their manufacturing overseas leaving us with more unemployment and more hardships. That causes more depression and mental health… more gambling… more reliance on alcohol… anxiety overeating… drug taking… ill health.

  8. LV says:

    ‘DrR ARC’, this prof Bob Carter is NOT from UQ. He’s from James Cook University. And from the Institute of Public Affairs, a free market fundamentalist ‘think tank’. To my knowledge he publishes in newspapers and economic journals but not in climate-science journals. Or in medical journals, for that matter.
    Pardon my English, but why is it that after any article on climate change there are so many nutters with no background in the relevant science that think they know better than all major National Academies of Science together?

  9. DBC says:

    The suggestion that the Earth is warming due to human activity is political rather than scientific in origin and is being pushed by a motley collection of empire building academics, bankers who can see a quick dollar to be made, (anyone for shorting carbon credits???), the windmill and solar industry push who can only exist on government subsidies and can never supply the energy needs of a modern economy, misguided idealists, the list goes on. Finally, we and the medical profession in particular (gastric ulcers, anyone?) should never forget that science can never be decided by consensus.

  10. Mark Houston says:

    I fond it strange that Australians are so keen to discuss the environment, when the issue of climate change arises, but absolutely nobody discusses how increased body size, of modern humans is affecting climate change, since larger bodies (greater height and inflated somatic size – basically increased fatness), not only require increased resources (food) to grow, but even worse, require more water to hydrate. Tom Samaras, possibly the world’s leading authority on the issue of human body size, and the phenotypes effect on health and the planet, has already estimated that for each one inch increase in height, the human body uses 70% more water.
    With Australia being the driest country on the planet, how can Australians, and especially the Australian medical community start to discuss climate change, if increased body size and increased population are not first addressed. This whole isse reminds me of a statement by Rose E. Frisch, who while at a seminar on the issue of female body fat and fertility asked this question from a team of scientists:
    Question: Do you think antibiotics and vaccinations are responsible for increased height and increased fatness in young girls ?
    One of the scientists was a veterinarian, who jumped into the conversation with the following answer:
    Answer: Of course it is. That’s how we breed pigs.
    I would like to hear some comments.

  11. Dude says:

    One would have thought the doctors understand things like the weight of evidence, but alas, the previous 2 posts proves this wrong. I suppose it is a reflection of the membership of the AMA, that Liberal party cheer squad.

  12. DR.ARC says:

    In speaking with real climate change scientist Prof. Robert Carter of the University of Queensland, who is a world authority and an unpaid adviser to the Government on climate change and global warming, indicates that climate change is a natural phenomenon which has been happening for millenia. Human endeavours have little or no influence on the ultimate outcome. Computer predicted models on which the Government bases its future predictions are greatly flawed.
    Taxing so called heavy polluters and subsidising the public for increased costs for electricity & gas, is Socialism by stealth…a redistribution of wealth.
    Ultimately, we will all be poorer and worse off.
    My solution is to develop cleaner and more sustainable ways of energy generation, but it wont make one iota of difference to climate on a global scale.

  13. MalcolmB says:

    “….seen in the predicted spread of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events…”
    In fact these predictions are not accepted by experts, or have been disproven – Russell et al (MJA 2009; 190 (5): 265-268)showed that dengue fever distribution varies independent of temperature and the global expert Paul Reiter has been quite vociferous about the lack of impact of temperature on malaria. The University of Florida keeps data on tropical cyclones and the index of frequency multipied by intensity is at a 30-year low ( So in fact almost all the health predictions are wrong, and exaggeration of these effects risks transferring money and effort from genuine health issues to unnecesary CO2 abatement projects. The Lancet is not talking science, it is making a political statement.

  14. RayT says:

    Climate change is real. However, we are, now, at a peak of temperature and CO2 levels expected from the Milankovic Cycles. Nevertheless, based on my own reading about the topic and talking to the chairman and one of his staff at the Environment Institute at the University of Adelaide about their research and questions my own reading has raised, I am satisfied that there is a human contribution aggravating the effect of the current natural cyclic peak. What amazes me is that we then go on to tinker with minor factors or embrace taxes or trading schemes that focus on buying offsets rather than actively reducing pollution. Currently, Denmark, which is some years ahead of Oz in going down the renewables and bicycling track, emits 650 mg of CO2 for each KW hour of energy produced. France emits 90 gm per KWh. (Source: Professor Mike Young of the Environment Institute.) Why? France went nuclear over 20 years ago and has not looked like having a nuclear accident. Cheap clean power would help to make carbon free hydrogen fuel for cars available. Existing petrol motors can be relatively cheaply converted to burn hydrogen.

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