THIS week saw the release of the Working Group I climate science report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This assessment of the science behind planetary warming confirmed what has been previously predicted: that limiting global temperature rise to 1.5⁰C this century will be immensely challenging.

Delivering the IPCC’s strongest warnings yet on human-caused climate change, the report tells of accelerating impacts and compound effects – extreme weather events happening at the same time – as well as rapidly approaching tipping points in the Earth’s natural systems. Combined, these will have profound implications for both human and non-human species.

The scientific evidence as to the anthropogenic cause of climate change is unequivocal. The new IPCC Working Group I report is just the latest of this evidence.

Climate change and health are closely linked. In 2009 The Lancet declared climate change as “the biggest global threat to human health of the 21st century”. A few years later, the World Health Organization stated “an urgent, global health challenge that requires prioritised action now and in the decades to come”.

These statements have been agreed upon by countless other health organisations around the world, with many, including several Australian medical colleges and the Australian Medical Association, declaring climate change as “a health emergency”.

The weight of evidence about the tangible and intangible health harms of climate change includes:

  • direct impacts, or morbidity and mortality related to exposure to extreme weather events (eg, fires, floods, cyclones) and extreme temperatures and heatwaves;
  • indirect impacts, or morbidity and mortality occurring secondary to other systems affected by climate (eg, changes in air quality, infectious disease patterns and vectors, changes in water quality, and changes in food production); and
  • impacts on the social determinants of health, such as civil unrest that results from resource scarcity or forced migration, social erosion, and the psychological or economic hardship that result from threats to life and livelihoods.

These are not future threats. They are already being felt on a daily basis.

For example, in the past two decades heat-related mortality in older persons has doubled, and a recent study found that 37% of lives lost across the world since 1991 due to extreme heat can be attributed to climate change.

The Australian 2019–2020 bushfires resulted in 32 deaths, an estimated 417 excess deaths attributable to bushfire smoke, and thousands presenting to emergency departments or hospitalised for cardiovascular and respiratory illness. The impacts of these fires on the fetuses of pregnant women and the persistent mental health and social impacts are yet to be fully realised.

Overseas, we have seen terrifying scenes of record-breaking fires in the US, Turkey, Greece and southern Europe, flooding in Germany and in China, and devastating heatwaves across the US and Canada. Recent evidence suggests up to 8 million premature deaths globally each year (one in five deaths) are attributable to air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. The causes of climate change are also damaging in their own right.

As with many things, vulnerability to climate change is not equal, and climate change compounds and exacerbates existing inequalities. Those with fewer resources, and who have likely contributed the least to its occurrence, will be most affected. This includes the elderly, youth, First Nations people, people with existing disability, women, and those with lower socio-economic status. The effects of climate change will also be more profoundly felt by regional and remote communities, and the current maldistribution of workforce will become more pronounced, resulting in even less access to care for these vulnerable communities.

The future projections in the new IPCC Working Group I report are frightening. They present a catastrophic risk to future human health. For those who have been working at the interface of health and climate and calling for action for years, this IPCC report is hard to read. It is what we had feared, and what we had been hoping to avoid.

However, the very clear take-home message from the report is that there is still a chance of keeping global warming to below 1.5 degrees if we take rapid action this decade.

Health professionals enjoy status that endows both immense power and privilege. As stewards of health, trusted members of our communities, and with a duty of care for both current and future generations, we must act with integrity, and with consideration of justice to those most vulnerable and most at risk. It is unacceptable not to act. This is firmly “our lane” and the health of all Australian communities is at stake.

We have succeeded against many public health threats in the past, including tobacco control, human immunodeficiency virus infection/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS), asbestos and more. We have seen more recently with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) that government, businesses, industry and the community can be mobilised when health is at stake and when there is clear direction from health leaders. We have been seen as trusted sources of information and voices of truth to our communities.

The conversation around climate and health is no different. A united health voice has the power to help shift conversations and bring parties together to work collaboratively to find shared solutions.

As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres in 2018 said: “Climate change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment”.

The IPCC is the most authoritative international body on climate science. Established in 1988, its Assessment Reports – published every 5–8 years – have heavily influenced international agreements. With the pivotal climate conference COP26 approaching in November 2021, it is imperative that Australia heeds the warning of this IPCC report.

Australia’s doctors must speak up and commit to demanding climate action from our national leaders, to limit catastrophic harm and ensure justice for all.

Dr Kimberly Humphrey is an emergency medicine consultant physician, and the Deputy Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Dr Emma-Leigh Synnott is a consultant physician in rehabilitation medicine and the Medical Lead for Climate Health and Environment Sustainability at her health service. She is the WA Chair of Doctors for the Environment 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.


Australia’s doctors must speak up and commit to demanding climate action from our national leaders
  • Strongly agree (62%, 38 Votes)
  • Strongly disagree (31%, 19 Votes)
  • Agree (3%, 2 Votes)
  • Neutral (2%, 1 Votes)
  • Disagree (2%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 61

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9 thoughts on “IPCC report: chance for doctors to take climate action

  1. Anonymous says:

    ‘One emergency at a time please’ – beautifully summing up the incompetence of our leaders when it comes to tackling climate change, air pollution or Covid.
    ‘Others are worse’ – the second line of defense, supposed to relive us of any responsibility for our immoral behaviour..
    ‘I’ve found evidence to the contrary’ – the third one, producing one source of lowest-level evidence that is fervently believed in, to magically counter the conclusions and scientific consensus of overwhelming majority of high-level evidence and meta-analyses.
    Ah the predictability of the entitled ones benefiting from destruction trying to justify their harmful activities, be that Climate Change, Air pollution, Fossil Fuels – or indeed Covid.

  2. A/Prof Vicki Kotsirilos AM says:

    Excellent article – beautifully summarised! Thank you and Well done.
    Let’s hope the government will listen to health authorities and act urgently, just as it responded to the COVID-19 crisis.

  3. Anonymous says:

    One global health emergency at a time please. Take your place in the queue.
    We will need two full generations to pay for the global response – much of it probably misjudged – to COVID.
    We don’t have the money or capacity to further deliberately debilitate our economies for climate models.
    Perhaps get back to us in 2060.
    In the meantime, perhaps you could picket the Chinese embassies around the world. Given the rate of ongoing expansion of fossil fuel use in mainland China, that’s probably a cost effective – if not likely practically effective – use of your spare time.
    The again, it’s probably as effective as anything that has been proposed…

  4. Paul Jenkinson says:

    Imagine flipping a coin 41 times and getting the same result each time. That a billions to one shot and that’s a 50:50 chance each time. There has been 41,yes 41,IPPC and other august scientific government funded bodies dire predictions since early 1970 (when some amongst us will recall we were worried about going into an ice age).Every one until 2020 has been wrong!! And I betcha’ the scientists thought the chances were better than 50:50 each prediction which,of course,makes the total failure immensely worse.
    The human lives lost in extreme weather events has dropped by 90% in last century-fact.
    China’s emissions are 34% of global emissions and rapidly rising with no hope of any change for decades.Australia’s is 1.2% and falling.
    We are coming out the Little ice age from 14th to 18th Century. It ended about 1750.
    The Medieval warming period about 10th and 11th C,was hotter than now as was the Roman Warm Period.
    World crop yields are going gangbusters.
    Even NASA agrees the world has had a 15% greening since the 1980s.
    Extreme weather events are not more frequent or devastating than they have been in the past and arguably less frequent.
    And despite numerous Climate talkfests and agreements,there has been no effect on a persistent linear rise in harmless CO2.There is still no direct evidence that CO2 causes warming,only correlations.
    Cativist scientists only use proxies which provide an answer they want and even our BOM manipulate data,generally cooling the past.
    Even the globalists who push this crap know this all about radical change to the world economic system;taking from the rich Western countries,ruining their economies and states and establishing a central globalist world order with elites governing and the underclass “owning nothing and be(ing) happy”.Obama and Gore live on the shore line.
    Anyone noticed that no activist scientist will ever debate a skeptic scientist? Wonder why.

  5. Ulf Steinvorth says:

    Are over 8 million premature deaths yearly due to burning of fossil fuel newsworthy and worth acting upon?
    Food for thought for the ones who can’t make up their mind on whether increased severe weather events are a good or bad thing, in spite of all major medical associations around the world having agreed that Climate Change is a global health emergency.

  6. Ian Hargreaves says:

    Zhao et al, Lancet Planet Health 2021; 5: e415–25:: Global, regional, and national burden of mortality associated with non-optimal ambient temperatures from 2000 to 2019: a three-stage modelling study.

    “This study has some strengths. First, to the best of our knowledge, it is the largest investigation of the adverse impact of non-optimal temperatures on population health.”

    “We found that there were 5 083 173 deaths per year associated with non-optimal temperatures, accounting for 9·43% of global deaths and equating to 74 temperature-related excess deaths per 100 000 residents. Most excess deaths were linked to cold temperatures (8·52%), whereas fewer were linked to hot temperatures (0·91%). Globally, from 2000–03 to 2016–19, the cold-related excess death ratio changed by –0·51 percentage points and the heat-related excess death ratio increased by 0·21 percentage points, leading to a net decline of –0·30 percentage points.”

    Although, as a sop to the alarmists, they do note:

    “Our study also explored the temporal change in temperature-related mortality burden from 2000 to 2019. The global daily mean temperature increased by 0·26°C per decade during this time, paralleled with a large decrease in cold-related deaths and a moderate increase in heat-related deaths. The results indicate that global warming might slightly reduce the net temperature-related deaths, although, in the long run, climate change is expected to increase mortality burden.” They do not specify a time course for ‘the long run’, but if their trend is followed it would be hundreds of years before heat deaths overtake cold deaths.

    It appears that global warming is an effective vaccine, saving lives from cold deaths, with the unfortunate side effect of killing a lower number of people from heat deaths. The uneven distribution of mortality: “Eastern Europe had the highest heat-related excess death rate and Sub- Saharan Africa had the highest cold-related excess death rate” may prejudice Western commentators to fear warming, despite its benefits for the world’s poorest people.

    449 Australian bushfire deaths in a year is intensely newsworthy to us, but 4 1/2 million cold deaths globally in a year is more of a ‘health emergency’.

  7. Cybele Dey says:

    Dear Max, it is really important that we consider the information in an evidence-based, neutral, balanced way – which is what the IPCC has done and why the RACP, RACGP and the RANZCP have all made clear statements about the climate health emergency we are facing. Australia can not afford the health costs of failing to take more effective action, let alone the wider impacts on the economy of not making a planned, well coordinated switch to renewables and off fossil fuels, including gas. The mental health impacts that are now “firm evidence” (RC UK Sustainability position 2021), of rising rates of suicide and serious self-harm with rising temperatures are just one of the ways in which this in an emergency. Sincerely, Cybele Dey

  8. David King says:

    Bjorn Lomborg?! He has gone very quiet over the last few years. Maybe because the costs of clean energy have come down so much, and are now cheaper than tax payer funded fossil fuels, that his previous projections of more cost than benefit of shifting to cleaner fuels are totally exposed as very erroneous. Even back then Stern and Garnaut didn’t agree with his assumptions and modelling, so hardly evidence-based……

  9. Max says:

    “For example, in the past two decades heat-related mortality in older persons has doubled…”.
    Perhaps you forgot to mention that more than twice that number of people were saved from deaths due to cold as a consequence of global warming.
    But we mustn’t mention evidence-based environmentalists like Bjorn Lomborg: sings from the wrong song-sheet. Imagine trying to put global warming into perspective amongst all the problems the world faces in trying to allocate resources for greatest effectiveness!: what is he thinking??!
    Much better to go with ‘lots of doctors and scientists who all agree with each other agree that …’

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