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Medical colleges urge Prime Minister to act on climate emergency


Anastasia Tsirtsakis


15/09/2021 4:09:00 PM

Doctors have warned Australia must significantly increase its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to protect health and save lives.

A woman on a balcony wearing a mask.
Doctors say they are already dealing with the reality of climate change in their consulting rooms.

‘Australia must talk less about aspiration, and focus on firm and binding commitments that are aligned with the science.’
 
That is the stance of an open letter addressed to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and signed by medical leaders from the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) and 10 colleges, including the RACGP.
 
Together, they are calling on the Federal Government to commit to a national plan to protect health by cutting greenhouse gas emissions this decade, in alignment with science-based targets. This includes:

  • policies that acknowledge the health benefits of renewable energy and accelerate the transition
  • significantly increasing Australia’s Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement at COP26, the UN’s climate change conference, in line with limiting global warming to 1.5°C
  • developing a national climate change and health strategy to facilitate planning for future climate health impacts. 
Given the healthcare sector is estimated to contribute 7% of Australia’s total carbon footprint, the doctors and colleges are also calling for the establishment of a national Sustainable Healthcare Unit to support environmentally sustainable practice in healthcare, and reduce the sector’s own emissions.
 
The united call from the medical bodies and colleges comes ahead of COP26, which is due to be hosted in Glasgow from 1–12 November.
 
To showcase sustainability practices that are already underway to improve the healthcare sector’s carbon footprint, the AMA and DEA hosted a webinar on Tuesday. Dr Lara Roeske represented the RACGP, presenting on the college’s vision and strategic actions it has taken so far.
 
‘We were delighted to be presenting,’ she told newsGP.
 
‘The college recognises that climate change is a key public health issue … and we are committed to including climate action and environmental sustainability action in our next RACGP plan.’
 
The college has also already taken some action, including an investment policy that ensures funds are only invested into projects where there is an adherence to environmental sustainability.
 
Further to that, the RACGP’s Climate and Environmental Medicine Specific Interests Group, which has over a thousand active members, has committed to:
  • developing a submission for COP26
  • working with the Victorian Government, alongside other colleges, to develop a new Health and Human Services Adaptation Action Plan
  • collaborating with the RACGP’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Faculty to consider specific impacts of climate change on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to produce resources for practice waiting rooms
  • working closely with the RACGP’s education team to provide input into the curriculum and syllabus to ensure the future GP workforce is skilled in environmental impacts on health
  • providing guidance to the RACGP’s Board and staff on how the organisation can continue to be sustainable.
To further support members, the college is also hosting a series of webinars on the impacts of climate change, as well as developing a toolkit to help improve the sustainability of general practices and to build on any existing resources.
 
In the open letter, the medical leaders emphasise that doctors understand the imminent health threats posed by climate change, and have already witnessed the impacts firsthand.
 
‘The 2019–2020 bushfire season in Australia saw parts of the country afflicted by the poorest air quality in the world, with large numbers of the population enduring weeks of bushfire smoke and the related adverse health impacts,’ the letter states.
 
‘That climate disaster also tragically took more than 30 lives as a direct result of the fires.
 
‘Since then, we have seen the stark impacts of extreme weather events playing out in the northern hemisphere in 2021. Flooding, fires and heatwaves not only have immediate health risks, but also come with the longer-term physical, economic and mental impacts of displacement, loss of life and loss of
livelihoods.’
 
Dr Roeske agrees that GPs are already experiencing the ‘far-reaching’ effects of climate change in their consulting rooms. And as individuals living and working at the centre of their communities, she says GPs are important advocates for change.
 
‘The evidence is clear – there are adverse health impacts from environmental climate change – that’s not under dispute,’ Dr Roeske said.
 
‘And so it is part of our role to continue to raise our voice on behalf of the communities and people that we serve, and we will continue to.
 
‘We are really proud to be part of a community of GPs that see this as a critical emerging social health issue, and we are very much at the front of the wave. We’ve still got a way to go, but I feel that our college has made a really significant commitment to the space and is taking the action it needs to take now.’
 
For GPs interested in learning more about the impacts of climate change on health, Dr Roeske encouraged members to join the college’s specific interest group.
 
‘It’s a great start,’ she said. ‘It’s a really good way to learn from your colleagues who have expertise in this space, who are leaders and also GPs.’
 
The RACGP has a series of free webinars available for members, including ‘The health effects of climate change’, taking place on 30 September. More information is available on the RACGP website.
 
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