Health experts' plea to the PM

Top Australian scientists - including Gustav Nossal and Peter Doherty - have joined with medical authorities to pen an open letter to the Prime Minister urging him to put climate change on the G20 agenda on health grounds.

*Open letter from Peter C Doherty, Gustav J V Nossal, Fiona J Stanley, Anthony J McMichael, Stephen R Leeder, Bruce K Armstrong, Antony Basten, Robert M Douglas, Adele C Green, David J C Shearman, Graham V Vimpani and Alex D Wodak.

Dear Prime Minister,

We urge you to include human-induced climate change and its serious health consequences on the agenda for this year's G20 meeting. The world community looks to high-income countries for a strong lead. Current climate trends, driven by global warming, threaten the basis of future economic prosperity, regional political stability and human health.

As concern rises in many countries, including increasing awareness of the risks to human health and safety, many G20 members are strengthening their commitment to substantive mitigation action. The new United States regulations limiting coal-fired power plant emissions are explicitly linked to the protection of health. Meanwhile, if Australia passes up opportunities for new energy technologies and efficiencies, we will forfeit gains in long-term economic security and fail to contribute fairly to reducing worldwide risks to human health.

There are serious risks from climate change to the health of populations everywhere – widely documented in national and international scientific assessments. The risks include, but extend well beyond, intensified heatwaves, floods, fires and the spread of disease-bearing mosquitoes. Regional food yields and hence child and adult nutrition are at risk. Water shortages threaten the quantity and quality of drinking water, hygiene and agriculture. Warming and acidification of oceans endanger marine food sources. Infections such as gastroenteritis increase with warming, as do levels of important hazardous air pollutants. Threats to rural and coastal assets and livelihoods will adversely affect mental health.

Adverse health outcomes related to climate change are already evident in many regions of the world. By mid century, serious health risks are likely to be widespread, particularly in vulnerable communities, including in Australia. Workloads and economic and logistical demands on the nation's health system will also rise as these impacts increase.

Near-term cost savings from health gains resulting directly from emission-reducing actions could be substantial. For example, the savings from health gains due to reduced heat extremes and accompanying air pollution would greatly exceed those accruing to agriculture from the same reduction in exposure.

In the long run, the harm to human health from climate change is more than an avoidable burden of suffering, injury, illness and premature death. It signals that our mismanagement of the world's climate and environment is weakening the foundations of health and longevity.

This issue warrants urgent consideration at the G20 meeting. The health of present and future generations is at risk from ongoing human-induced climate change.

This letter was originally published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

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