The tide of public opinion on climate change may be turning in the US with the impacts of massive drought, floods, storms and bushfires. A recent poll suggests so. Perhaps the removal of climate change from the realm of science to personal experience of physical and economic harm was always necessary for realisation.
The events in the US seem to have hit the US consciousness like a visitation, their magnitude has raised the thought that climate change might be true; there has been a deluge of comment in the press following the release of a telling report on extreme weather events and one on sea level rise particularly on the east coast of the US. These have induced fear.
The ultimate impacts of climate change are disease, injury and death. Then why have these had so little effect on the public’s motivation? Surely the community would accept the imperatives of medical science and recognise the threats from heat stroke, bush fires, extreme weather, particularly flood, and the spread of some infectious diseases? All have been recognised for at least a decade and several are occurring in Australia - with cyclone Yasi, the Victorian bushfires and heat waves all causing death and injury.
Why has there been a failure to deliver the health message?
Certainly the underlying message has not been delivered by a generally manipulative press on climate change, or by governments, but the responsibility of the medical profession is paramount.
Medical doctors have standing, have a commitment to society and could be more influential. A leading medical journal The Lancet has said that climate change is “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century” yet the proportion of the profession accepting this is probably no greater than in the general community. Unfortunately research indicates that an understanding of science does not deliver insight on this issue, it is clouded by more innate beliefs about values in society, fear of change and discomfort over ‘greenies’ and conservationists.
A recent study in Nature identifies why humanity can deflect climate change as a moral issue and offers some explanation why the medical profession has failed to act when it acts on other moral imperatives. The profession’s climate change difficulties lie to some extent with its conservatism as discussed by Naomi Klein in The Nation.
In general, medical organisations have lacked commitment. The AMA grapples with what are more immediate matters of life and death. The torpor of the Royal Colleges has been distressing, but probably reflects the views and conflicts present in the general community.
The health message should have been delivered by government but it gagged itself with conflict of interest in supporting coal and other fossil fuel mining, preferring expediency to careful explanation of long term sustainability. Unfortunately for them this would draw attention to many communities suffering and accepting ill health from pollution because they fear loss of jobs.
A price on carbon is a public health measure yet government has failed to use it. Government has been contained in its kraal with Mr Abbott circling the perimeter with his clever Orwellian repetitive statement “The carbon tax is a bad tax” which has hard wired into the brain of the community. The immediate response should be “Clean air good, pollution bad” a response that could be varied with the use of the words “children” and “health”.
How do doctors proceed for the better?
There is evidence that labelling the issue as environmental is counterproductive. The message is that health, economic stability, sustainable employment and peace, for all are threatened by progressive climate change
It is difficult for the medical profession with long demanding hours to find the additional motivation to lobby, teach and act on health and climate change, yet some do, and those doctors reading this column should join us, Doctors for the Environment Australia in collective action, for our role has been to provide advocacy and education that should be the role of the professional organisations.
The profession can take action by promoting co-benefits in health and the economy by reducing greenhouse and associated air pollution. The health services and the community pay billions for treating the health impacts of fossil fuels. Indeed health co-benefits can be identified in most policy areas of climate change amelioration. They have not been addressed.
David Shearman E/Professor of Medicine is Hon Secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia, an independent public health organisation of medical doctors – www.dea.org.au.