- On November 22, 2018
- November / December 2018
No time for games
Children and future generations stand to lose the most from our inaction on climate change, writes Dr Ingo Weber.
Reports from both The Lancet and the World Bank on the health impacts of climate change estimate that we are likely to exceed the "safe" threshold of 2°C within this century.
Yet despite the Paris Climate Agreement to stay below 2°C, global greenhouse gas emissions, including Australia's, are still rising when we should be well on our way to reduction (IEA 2018). According to The Lancet's "Countdown on Health and Climate Change – 2017 Report", the nationally-determined contributions of the 153 parties that ratified the agreement now fall short of the necessary reductions by 2030 to meet the 2°C pathway.
In September 2018, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke out about by the paralysis of world leaders on the defining issue of our times. He warned that climate change is moving faster than we are and that it poses a direct existential threat to our civilizations. Mr Guterres said in a media statement: "If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid catastrophic climate change."
His statements are echoed in the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which outlines a bleak future with significant loss of life and threat to our health by increasing the environment in which infectious diseases can spread, and through more extreme weather events such as heat waves and other weather-related disasters that can lead to food and water shortages, if we do not take rapid and far reaching action now (including phasing out coal by 2050). The AMA has urged the Federal Government to act on the dire warnings for human health that are contained in the IPPC report.
How we respond to climate change over the next few years will matter more than ever before.
Any rise above 2°C is likely to be "academic" as the tipping point whereby the earth systems are likely to drive warming further (e.g. through positive feedback systems such as the release of stored methane from permafrost) is estimated to be close to the 2°C mark (PNAS Steffen 2018).
A 4°C global warming scenario would bring to fruition the 2009 Lancet Report's grim warning that our children and future generations could be living in a dystopian world where weather and temperature extremes would limit adaptation and survival to just a few places around the world.
The potential health implications and impacts of climate change on health and welfare for our societies have been well described.
Direct impacts include those from fires, floods, storms, and weather extremes such as heat waves and droughts. The Lancet Report (2017) states that in 2015, a record 175 million more people were exposed to heatwaves, when compared to the average for 1986-2008.
Indirect impacts include trauma, social disruption, mental health issues and suicide from increases in conflicts, climate change dislocation, and disruption to agriculture, food and water supply. Increasing diseases from vector-borne transmissions (eg. Dengue) and food poisonings are also expected.
However, it is our children and the future generations who stand to lose the most. Children are far more vulnerable to temperature and weather extremes and will increasingly experience the full impacts of the projected climate chaos, without being able to do much about it and despite having least contributed. Children spend more time outdoors, their bodies and minds are less able to cope with extreme weather and they are dependent on adults for protection, guidance and development. They also stand to lose most in terms of life years lost.
As the American Academy of Pediatrics states in 2015: "The social foundations of children's mental and physical health are threatened by the spectre of far-reaching effects of unchecked climate change, including community and global instability, mass migrations, and increased conflict. Given this knowledge, failure to take prompt, substantive action would be an act of injustice to all children. Pediatricians have a uniquely valuable role to play in the societal response to this global challenge."
Doctors are on the frontline of healthcare and have a long history of speaking out when the health of our communities is threatened. We have advocated on public health issues such as tobacco, asbestos, and HIV/AIDS where vested interests have ensured that resistance to change continues for decades.
With climate change we lack the luxury of time. According to the Australia Institute's "Climate of the Nation Report 2018", the number of Australians concerned about climate change and wanting action has reached a five-year high, increasing to 73%. Most people also agree that the Government needs to implement a plan for the orderly closure of old coal plants and a transition to clean energy.
Faced with this challenge, Doctors for the Environment Australia, (DEA) with support from the Paediatric and Child Health division of the RACP is launching an urgent children's health awareness campaign with the apt name: No Time for Games.
This campaign is supported by many distinguished doctors, including Australian of the Year recipient Professor Fiona Stanley, eminent paediatrician Professor Susan Prescott, and rural practitioner Dr Amanda Bethell, (GP of the Year in 2017). It is also garnering support from Australia's medical colleges and associations, as well as doctors and medical students nationwide.
Based on DEA's original "No Time for Games" report (2015), an updated summary (2018) contains five key recommendations for action which are embodied in the campaign:
- A much more proactive, effective, and whole-of0-government strategic and operational approach to climate mitigation is needed urgently, recognising the significant health benefits for children.
- A shift to a rapid and just transition to cheaper renewable forms of energies with storage will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions that are in keeping with Australia's global contribution and its technological and economic capabilities. Additionally, it will have a range of co-benefits: it will reduce ill health in children and adults from air pollution, result in significant cost savings to the health sector, and also reduced energy costs for Australian citizens and organisations.
- Strengthening our primary, emergency, rural and mental health services as well as research capacity to increasingly be able to respond to children, Indigenous communities and people in rural and remote areas affected by climate change.
- Greening our healthcare systems, in which doctors are well placed to be a driving force to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and waste.
- Divestment of superannuation funds and bank accounts from fossil fuel industries, towards cheaper, healthy, and more profitable alternatives such as renewable energies.
Given the current climate challenges we are already witnessing in Australia and around the world, it's clear that now is not the times for games; it's time to act.
Dr Ingo Weber is leading the No Time For Games campaign on behalf of Doctors for the Environment Australia. He works as an anaesthetist.For article references, please email the editor, firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to help? Three things you can do today!
- Join the No Time for Games campaign by making a pledge to support key recommendations protecting children's health. DEA will deliver your pledge to key policy makers in government. Go to this website.
- Join Australia's peak medical body addressing climate change and its impacts on health, Doctors for the Environment Australia: www.dea.org.au.
- Divest your funds from the fossil fuel industries and those superannuation funds and bank accounts that support them. Market Forces have a range of excellent resources: www.marketforces.org.au