IT IS becoming clear that the dangers to health by unrestrained climate change may become insurmountable.

As a result, doctors from around Australia gathered in Hobart on 3 April 2019 to declare a climate emergency. They called on the Australian federal and state governments to respond to the significant early signs of climate chaos. The medical doctors from numerous specialties stated that anything less on the part of governments will amount to negligence.

Doctors are well aware that if the early symptoms and signs of sepsis, including fever, are ignored and prompt action is not taken, then mortality rates rise with every hour of delay. Yet, years of delay have now passed without urgent action being taken to reduce emissions sufficiently to halt global warming and subsequent climate change.

Metaphorically, the choice is now clear: planetary health or planetary sepsis.

The political turmoil in Canberra regarding this issue over the past 12 years has been a national disgrace.

There are multiple challenges and priorities confronting the medical profession and health care in Australia, but the impacts on health by worsening climate change are becoming increasingly apparent (here, here, here, here and here). They will become overwhelming for the health care system and the community if urgent and sufficient action is not taken.

Record temperatures and heatwaves across multiple cities and regions, deadly bushfires across many states, prolonged droughts followed by cyclonic activity and devastating flooding, enormous loss of livestock and native animals, and outbreaks of diseases associated with these extreme weather events are stark realities. During the Townsville flood clean-up, two people died as a result of melioidosis, and up to 15 people contracted the deadly environmental bacteria.

At times, these severe weather events have placed great strain on emergency departments, and they are predicted to become more extreme.

The responsibility rests with multiple countries, but Australia is a stable democracy, is well qualified, has a very high per-capita carbon footprint, is exporting large quantities of fossil fuels that will add to the global burden of emissions, is very vulnerable to rising temperatures and should be taking a lead. Our country is failing to do so.

The evidence from the International Panel on Climate Change, the World Health Organization, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and major reputable scientific organisations makes it very clear that the next 11 years through to 2030 will determine what our future environment and the health and wellbeing of our own and the global population will look like. The predictions are becoming increasingly dismal unless there is a political awakening at home and abroad.

Australia is failing to meet its own inadequate Paris Agreement emission reduction targets of 26–28%. Overall emissions have continued to rise over the past 4 years and larger targets will be needed if Australia is serious about its global responsibility.

A working climate change and energy policy will need to embrace strategies to deal with the four major sources of emissions: energy production, industry, transportation and agriculture. It will need vision and commitment that is not constrained by an outdated and dangerous over-reliance on fossil fuels and the unwillingness to recognise the severity and the urgency of the problem.

Australia has enormous renewable natural resources of radiant heat and wind, it has the scientific and technological workforce to develop them to their full potential, but it has lacked the vision and the political will to do so in a sensible strategic manner. Predictable energy supplies have suffered as a consequence of poor planning and ineffective action.

If ever there was a time for the medical profession and the wider health care sector to raise their voices about these threats to health, it is now.

Various groups including the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Australasian College for Emergency medicine (ACEM) have already done so. In November 2018, ACEM, during its Annual Scientific Conference, conducted a session entitled Climate change: a medical emergency.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has endorsed a strong set of policies on climate change. It has also recently publicly supported a national approach for the health sector to initiate a sustainable development unit to assist various jurisdictions to reduce their own emissions and develop adaptation strategies, as has Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA). The AMA could also use its political access to further emphasise that climate change is a major health issue that must be addressed more seriously and urgently.

The Climate and Health Alliance has been very active developing and promoting a National Strategy Framework on Climate Change. DEA supports this initiative but also advocates for strong new environmental laws informed by the best available scientific evidence. DEA would welcome the introduction of a well resourced National Environment Protection Authority and a Sustainability Commission or equivalent.

DEA is also recognising that children are the most vulnerable to rising greenhouse gas emissions and has initiated a campaign entitled No Time For Games, calling all health professionals to “Take the Pledge” to protect current and future generations from climate change.

If the medical profession does not act strongly now, then it will bear some of the blame, and the sector much of the burden, for the inevitable impact on health from climate change.

Doctors are trained to act on the best available evidence and may be found to be negligent if they fail to do so. Political parties, and those who lead them, should be held to the same standard. They have failed to date, and some continue to remain too blind to realise or accept that failure.

The medical profession should remind political leaders that they have a duty of care towards the people they seek to govern. We need to demand that those leaders must act before it becomes too late to sufficiently protect the environment.

Health professionals have led the fight against health threats such as tobacco, asbestos and HIV/AIDS with excellent results. Now it behoves us to mobilise and act as one voice on the existential dangers of climate change.

If we do so, we can, as the Lancet has stated, turn climate change from the greatest threat to global health of the 21st century to the greatest opportunity to protect and improve global health in the 21st century.

Dr Kingsley Faulkner AM, is Co-Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia. He is President of the Australian Council on Smoking and Health. He was President of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (2001–2003); Head of General Surgery, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital; Clinical Professor within the Department of Surgery of the University of Western Australia; and Professor within the School of Medicine, Fremantle of the University of Notre Dame Australia.   



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.


Australian climate change inaction threatens lives
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9 thoughts on “Planetary health or planetary sepsis?

  1. Kathleen Wild says:

    It is amazing to me that a medical professional that someone would endorse eugenics (however speciously) as a policy priority before societal reduction of how we produce carbon emissions. There has been copious research produced and available evidence as to how a reduction in carbon intensity of our society could be achieved, if there was political and social will. Advocates for climate change action are trying to encourage an energy transition avoiding sackcloth and ashes, despite the common rhetoric, and this can be taken for ‘wit’ astounds me.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Nice satirical piece Ian, but many a true word is said in jest. There are indeed Gaia extremists out there who are advocating exactly what you depict: radical depopulation of the Earth.
    For others, having secured a carefully husbanded share portfolio, tidy superannuation balance and Chairman’s Club membership, all sorts of painful remedies can comfortably be recommended to signal virtue and find relevance in retirement.

  3. Ian Hargreaves says:

    On the RACS website for the upcoming Bangkok conference, the section right after the Venue informs delegates that there is a parents’ room and child minding facilities. That is, RACS members are encouraged to fly their children all the way to Bangkok. This attitude to thoughtless wastage of Petrochemicals is typical of many doctors’ groups, and clearly Dr Faulkner has not left any legacy of abstemiousness in the College he led.

    Despite identifying the problem in this article as one of sepsis, there is a profound reluctance to treat the infecting organism, as blinkered as any antivaxxer. If you believe in the disease, you need to believe in the cure. If the Earth walked into a cosmic tobacconist, the packet warning would say: Every human being is doing you harm.

    Streptococcal pneumonia: Destroy the Streptococci. Mycobacterial ulceration: Exterminate the Mycobacteria. Epidural abscess with spinal cord compression: Excise the abscess.

    Anthropogenic climate change:?

  4. Dr Michael Schien says:

    Thank you Kingsley for a very timely warning about where we are heading, and the very short timeframe left to reduce human greenhouse gas emissions. The most recent IPCC report gives us less than 12 years at our current rate.
    It is worth noting that the IPCC, United Nations, World Bank, NASA, World Meteorological Organisation and all other credible scientific organisations that rely on actual hard data, are in agreement on this. They are not “greenies”, but “realists”. It is a tragedy that a small group of fossil-fuel based billionaires, with huge financial self interest but little or no scientific background, continue to peddle “fake news” , and that gullible individuals get confused. So far, ” a little warming” of 1 degree has led to unprecedented drought, wildfires, coral bleaching, glacial retreat and reduced river flows, and increasing numbers of climate refugees. Doctors need to stick to the evidence, not stick our heads in the sand.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Are you aware Mr Chapman that the farmers are also very concerned and that plants dont grow over 40 degrees celsius.

    You may also be aware that the flat earth society lost 50% of its members when they put the first sputnik up into space. It still exists!!

  6. John Van Der kallen says:

    Geoff, seems like you’ve got quite a bit of anger going on there! i don’t think any of the “global warming zealots” have much to gain by trying to get people to understand the science of what is going on. It is fascinating to hear how aggressively people will be when trying to deny anthropogenic climate change.

  7. Ian Hargreaves says:

    Clearly, many people in this country are concerned about climate change, and can lobby politicians or vote accordingly. If we wish to look at practical things that doctors specifically can do, we need to look at what has been successful, and needs medical/surgical input. Scientific methods can then be implemented.

    The first evidence-based method is simple. China’s compulsory one child policy over 30 years has been credited with preventing 400 million births, as much as 30% of the current population. This is clearly shown in the relative rise of the Indian population, which over the period of the one child policy went from about two thirds to over 90% of that of China, despite voluntary campaigns such as free vasectomies for Indian patients. Implementing this in Australia would be even more effective, given that we have a more computerised society and better monitoring. Doctors can clearly be involved in forced abortions and compulsory sterilisation, as part of the implementation of such a plan. There is no other governmental policy which offers a realistic prospect of decreasing to zero the carbon emissions of 10 million future Australians. We all know our respiratory physiology, that if you don’t inhale oxygen, you don’t exhale carbon dioxide.

    A smaller population can move away from the flood / bushfire / melioidosis prone areas, and would need less food to be grown on marginal land.

    A similar approach can be taken by educational bodies like Dr Faulkner’s College of Surgeons. Preference could be given for trainee selection to those who are childless, with proof of surgical sterilisation such as vasectomy or tubal ligation. However, surgical techniques of reversal are always improving, so more extreme measures may be required. Giving preference to castrati would not only improve the upper registers of the RACS choir (still somewhat overly masculine), but also decrease the testosterone-fuelled bullying for which the RACS is infamous.

    College members would set an abstemious example to their patients, a caste of monk/surgeons, who would as a side benefit have fewer work/life balance issues by having no children. Implementing a travel ban would also help the environment – next month hundreds of RACS members are flying to Bangkok for their annual scientific meeting, burning tonnes of Avgas rather than having a webinar or even a domestic venue. Then again, hypocrisy from surgeons who do not care about their personal carbon footprint while lecturing others, is perhaps to be expected.

    There has been much campaigning for refugee intakes to Australia, including by medical groups. However refugees and other migrants from the third world massively increase their carbon footprint when they arrive in a country such as Australia. It is a normal emotional response to feel sympathy for refugees and would-be migrants, just as it is to sympathise with the families of coal miners who face forced redundancy. However, emotions (such as the burning desire for a nice trip to Bangkok) cannot be allowed to obstruct scientific treatment measures to deal with the greater problem of climate change.

    Doctors can refuse to provide medical help to refugees offshore, or volunteer to provide euthanasia services to humanely deal with the problem. It would be unconscionable to give false hope and bring people to a country which “is very vulnerable to rising temperatures.” Euthanasia for coal miners could either be on a voluntary basis, or compulsory if the government wishes to make a clear statement denouncing their crimes against the environment. At the very least, doctors could refuse to treat coal miners (or maybe just bill them full AMA rates for any treatment) to discourage their evil deeds.

    The final way in which doctors can practically help is promoting the principles of the Voluntary Human Extinction movement. There is no need to be concerned about the welfare of one’s descendants, if one has no descendants. Doctors can advocate this to their patients, and encourage surgical contraception. The VHE activists point out the damage humans have done to the environment, and while we cannot save the Diprotodon or the Thylacine from humans, we can save the Great Barrier Reef if there are no farms to pollute its waters. The key to tackling anthropogenic climate change is to remove the driver.

    The folks at Vehement (VHEMT) clearly have the perfect, scientifically sound solution to tackle “the greatest threat to global health of the 21st century.” Theirs is the only treatment which guarantees a pristine environment with zero anthropogenic climate change.

  8. John Graham says:

    The earths temperature has fallen since 2016 but moves in cycles and we are still in the last warming cycle which started after the last mini ice age. We have not exceeded prior cycle peaks with in this interglacial period and temperatures were even higher in past interglacial periods. So the earths temperature is not higher than expected even though CO2 is rising. The local climate is affected by not only Earths global temperature but multiple factors El Nino, etc. The cyclones, droughts, fires etc have not been shown to be greater than before and Australian records do not go back very far. It makes sense to limit adverse effects of drought , flood etc through practical means and benefit from higher CO2 levels with agriculture. Monitor global temperature at UAH satellite lower global atmosphere temperatures and remember that most cilimate models predict a plateau after an initial rise but it does not look like even a rise is coming. Time to stop scaring ourselves and our children.

  9. Geoff Chapman says:

    Interesting how these “climate change alarmists” have been prattling on about “climate change”, which has been occurring in cycles since the earth began, and to be arrogant enough to suggest that man can change it–have they forgotten how large the earth is, and in fact the solar system, particularly the sun , whose predominance controls the earths temperature. Perhaps we can shift the sun a couple of million light years further away. And interesting how the “global warming” zealots have segued into “climate change”, because the global warming is insignificant or non existent. Of course, anyone who doesn’t agree with them is a “denier”, or worse a racist ! Work that one out.
    And who’s to suggest a little warming might not help the Planet grow more crops, vegetation, etc , which is what all the “greenies”crave ?

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