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Doctors send climate change message ahead of crucial UN conference


Jolyon Attwooll


28/10/2023 4:35:51 PM

Organisations representing three million healthcare professionals have made a united call for the health risks of climate change to be addressed.

Family doctors at the Green Day media event
WONCA World Conference delegates donned green items of clothing in support of a call from doctors ahead of COP 28.

Family doctors in Canada, physicians in Brazil, GPs in Australia – and many other countries – joined forces at the WONCA World Conference to make an urgent call for governments to combat the growing health impact of climate change.
 
Gathering in front of media for ‘Green Day’, they voiced their support of an open letter with 40 signatories, including the RACGP, asking politicians to do more to protect their citizens from the health impacts of the crisis.
 
Speaking in front of a large international group of doctors who had donned green clothing in support of the message, RACGP Specific Interests Climate and Environmental Medicine Chair Dr Catherine Pendrey said that many attendees have directly treated patients impacted by climate change.
 
‘From the Black Summer bushfires to the Lismore floods, general practitioners and family doctors are on the front line of supporting their communities from climate change and its health impacts,’ she told reporters.
 
This is the reason health organisations representing three million health professionals have raised their concerns, according to Dr Pendrey.
 
The letter comes in the wake of new reports suggesting the Earth has seen the highest temperatures recorded for 100,000 years, while freak natural disasters have impacted millions, including record-breaking wildfires in Canada and the Amazon, unusual flooding in China, the Mediterranean and Australia’s east coast, and above average hurricane activity in the Atlantic.
 
It requests governments to take the following actions at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 28), which takes place from 30 November to 12 December:

  • Halt any expansion of new fossil fuel infrastructure and production
  • Phase out existing production and use of fossil fuels
  • Remove fossil fuel subsidies
  • Increase investment in renewable energy
  • Fast-track a just transition away from fossil fuel energy systems
Dr Maria Neira, World Health Organization Director for the Department of Environmental, Climate Change and Health, called climate change ‘potentially the greatest health challenge of the 21st century’.
 
‘The climate crisis is a health crisis, so we need to make sure that we have the resources to protect our people,’ she told media.
 
‘We need to be more resilient because we need to cope with those consequences, but at the same time we need to stop the causes of climate change.’
 
Earlier in the day, Dr Neira had presented a keynote address on the issue, saying that approximately seven million people around the world die prematurely each year due to air pollution – a situation she says overlaps significantly with climate change. Dr Neira also told delegates that climate change messaging should shift more to the damage done to human health, while simultaneously calling for a ‘whitecoat revolution’ with trusted doctors emphasising the benefits of mitigating the impact.
 
‘The whole discourse, the whole narrative around climate change has been [about] the planet, the future … the polar bears, the glaciers,’ she said.
 
‘And I think we have been a little bit wrong in our narrative. Not that … the planet is not suffering.
 
‘But we need to remind everyone that before everything, what is really affected … is our human health.
 
‘If people see this and they understand that what we are talking about here is their health and the health of their family and themselves – not in the next generation but now – this is where the revolution can start and things can change.’
 
She said the health community bears ‘a massive responsibility’ for dealing with extreme weather events and emphasised the potential improvements that an effective climate change strategy could bring.
 
‘We need to tell [greenhouse gas emissions negotiators] that if they take the right decisions, if they put in place mitigation strategies – mitigation for climate change, the causes of climate change – the health benefits can be enormous,’ Dr Neira said.
 
Speaking at the same plenary, Professor Enrique Falceto de Barros, who works as a family doctor in a remote part of southern Brazil, told delegates how he had diagnosed the first case of dengue fever in his community – a case he attributes to the health risks linked to the changing climate.
 
A former Chair of the WONCA Working Party on the Environment, Professor de Barros also said avoiding over-treatment would be one area where doctors can address the impacts of climate change.
 
‘We are planetary health doctors,’ he told delegates at a presentation entitled ‘One Minute for The Planet’.
 
‘If you do good family medicine, evidence-based medicine, you are green doctors.’
 
Speaking at the press conference later, Fiji College of General Practitioners President Dr Rajesh Maharaj told reporters how his country is already feeling the impacts.
 
‘Climate change is having a significant effect on the health and wellbeing of people in Fiji,’ he said.
 
‘Just in the last five years, we have had two devastating Category Five cyclones.’
 
He said the disasters brought more infectious diseases, such as dengue and typhoid, as well as creating strains on the country’s resources.
 
A similar message came from Canadian family doctor, Dr Alan Abelsohn, another past Chair of the WONCA Working Party on the Environment.
 
‘Like Australia, we’ve had tremendous fires with huge health impacts in our nation,’ he said.
 
‘People having to leave their homes, people’s respiratory conditions getting worse and their heart conditions getting worse.
 
‘Family doctors in Canada are well versed on the health impacts of climate change and support this effort to call them a moratorium on fossil fuels.’
 
RACGP President Dr Nicole Higgins said Australia needs to be ready to address the impacts of climate change, pointing out the heightened risk of a bad bushfire season this year.
 
‘Preventive action is crucial,’ she said.
 
‘GPs have an important role to play, including in discussing and motivating patients to prepare emergency plans based on local climate threats and their own personal circumstances and health needs.’
 
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