‘There won’t be a vaccine’: Calls to address climate change

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

14/08/2020 4:40:46 PM

Peak health bodies have urged Government to take direction from science and protect the health of Australians.

Woman wearing face mask walking through haze.
Climate change is already having serious impacts on the health of Australians due to extreme weather events. (Image: AAP)

‘This is a public health issue and it’s on our watch. It’s the responsibility of the health sector to really step up and start demanding action now before it’s too late.’

That is Dr Richard Yin, GP and Honorary Secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA).
He is one of 90,000 Australian doctors represented in a letter signed by a number of Australia’s peak health bodies, including the RACGP, calling on the Federal Government to protect the health of Australians by acting on climate change as part of its COVID-19 economic recovery.
Coordinated by the DEA, the letter argues that the world is in the middle of two global health emergencies: the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
‘Both are large, global public health crises,’ Dr Yin told newsGP. ‘We’ve seen from the pandemic that they have the capacity to completely overwhelm health systems, and spillover to economic impacts and social impacts, which are really profound.’
The letter highlights that global warming is already having serious impacts on the physical and psychological health of Australians due to extreme weather events, citing the unprecedented Black Summer bushfires.
‘[The] bushfires claimed 33 lives, while associated smoke engulfed our cities for weeks causing respiratory, cardiovascular and ocular complications,’ the letter states.
‘The smoke resulted in over 1300 presentations to emergency departments with asthma, more than 3000 hospitalisations for heart and lung problems and 417 excess deaths.
‘The mental health impacts of the bushfires are likely to be present for decades.’
The letter also draws attention to fossil fuels as a major contributor to air pollution.
‘Every year this silent killer is linked to the premature deaths of 3000 Australians,’ the authors state.
‘Higher levels of air pollution are associated with increasing illness and death related to ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive airways disease, lung cancer and asthma, and also with adverse outcomes in pregnancy, including low birthweight and stillbirth.’
The doctors call for a ‘whole-of-government approach’ to address climate change and, as with COVID-19, for actions to be based on ‘expert scientific and health advice’.
‘If we apply some of these learnings to climate change, then the science is really clear – we need to act now to reduce our emissions to try to avoid catastrophic impacts that are going to overwhelm a system, and spillover also into economic and social impacts,’ Dr Yin said.
To reduce carbon emissions, the letter suggests:

  • a transition away from fossil fuels – both coal and gas – to renewable energy
  • investment in projects and technologies that preserve the natural environment
  • investment in green infrastructure and public transport, with the additional benefits of promoting physical activity to reduce diseases such as obesity and diabetes, and substantially improve air quality.
 Dr Yin says post-COVID recovery offers an opportunity to reject developments that are destructive to the environment.
‘Particularly those that drive greenhouse gas emissions, and adopt policies that promote environmental sustainability, as well as investments in renewable power for a cleaner, healthier future,’ he said.
‘Because while this might be a slower moving public health crisis, it will nonetheless have really profound impacts – and unlike COVID, there won’t be a vaccine, and it’ll be largely irreversible where recovery will be extraordinarily difficult.’

Healthcare’s environmental footprint
An Australian-led study, published in The Lancet Planetary Health last month, revealed that current models of healthcare cause up to 5% of total global environmental damage, placing the sector alongside other major global contributors to climate change.
Of Australia’s total carbon footprint, the health sector contributes around 7%, with hospitals and pharmaceuticals the major contributors.  
Professor Tony Capon, co-author of the study and Director of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, says healthcare managers need to take active steps to understand the environmental footprint of the care they provide.
‘There is no doubt that healthcare is vitally important for protecting and maintaining human health – this has been reinforced during the current pandemic,’ he said.
‘However, our health systems are part of broader economic systems and can harm health through the resources they use, and the waste and pollution they produce.’
For sustainability policy to be embedded in everyday practice, Manfred Lenzen, lead author of the study and Professor of Sustainability Research at the University of Sydney, says the Government needs to take a leading role.
‘These findings underscore the need to support healthcare, especially if we require more of it in the future,’ he said.
Professor Capon agrees.
‘As health workers increasingly call for action on climate change, it’s important to ensure that our own house is in order,’ he said.
‘And urgently take steps to reduce this footprint.’

Australia’s devastating bushfire season was exacerbated by climate change. (Image: AAP)

So what steps can general practices take?
General practice contributes 4% of Australia’s total healthcare carbon footprint.
While that figure may seem comparatively small, Dr Catherine Pendrey says GPs have an important role to play in reducing emissions. 
‘Climate change really is a public health emergency; it threatens the fundamentals of human health – air, health, food, and a safe climate,’ she told newsGP.
‘Given our central role in the healthcare system, GPs have a key role in responding to the health impacts, definitely … as leaders in the community.
‘People can take action on a number of levels, such as personal actions [like] demonstrating leadership, both within practices and collective action through collective bodies, such as joining the [RACGP’s] Climate and Environmental Medicine special interest group.’
Dr Jessica Kneebone, Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Climate and Environmental Medicine network, agrees. She says general practices are well placed to take up environmental initiatives that have can have a significant impact.  
‘The benefits are many fold,’ she told newsGP.
‘Reduced emissions equals improved health for all, as well as cost savings to the GP.
‘Small actions may seem trivial compared to the scale of the problem we are facing with regards to environmental degradation and climate change, but these small actions can help change mindsets of others.
‘Then we see this ripple effect of positive change spilling out through the community. A bit like COVID, everyone has an important role to play.’
Steps GPs and practice managers can take: 
  • Appoint a ‘green champion’ in the practice to help drive change
  • Do an audit to assess general waste
  • Reduce energy consumption
  • Review water use
  • Reduce paper usage
  • Increase recycling
  • Minimise and recycle e‑waste
  • Transport
  • Diet
GPs can access ‘Reducing the environmental impact of a general practice’ fact sheet on the RACGP website. It has an accompanying e-waste policy template that practices can customise to suit their needs.
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A.Prof Vicki Kotsirilos, AM   16/08/2020 11:02:07 AM

Very grateful to the RACGP calling on the Federal Government to protect the health of Australians by promoting solutions for climate change such as clean energy as part of its COVID-19 economic recovery! Thank you!

Dr Ayodele Ezekiel Ogunjobi   18/08/2020 1:51:52 PM

I am really disappointed that RACGP have got itself involved in this apocalyptic global warming farce. RACGP supposed to speak as a doctors' organization. We are not supposed to float ideals insults the intelligence of science over pseudoscience. The call "clean energy" is a bubble. As a nation, our industrial/manufacturing sector has collapsed all because of this "green movements". Unemployment is soaring, mental health is correspondingly fast deteriorating and COVID 19 has further demonstrated how failing the economy and by extension the health system is. Instead of RACGP to join hands to see how our economy (and by extension our national health) will be bolstered using all the available sources of energy to develop our economy, bring back manufacturing; it has pandered itself into the hands of the apocalyptic alarmist. As a GP and member of RACGP, I think RACGP should refocus itself and leave the space of those who prioritizes our existence over the environment,