GPs to take to the streets over climate-health concerns

Doug Hendrie

28/08/2019 1:34:32 PM

On 20 September, millions of people around the world will take part in the latest global climate strike.

Climate protesters
Health professionals protested the impact of coal on health in Newcastle in September last year.

GPs from around Australia will be among those taking part in the strike, marching for the first time under the banner of Health Strike 4 Climate
The group wants to focus attention on the potentially catastrophic health impacts of climate change.
The strike is the latest in a series of environmental interventions by doctors, following influential earlier campaigns against nuclear proliferation and ozone depletion.
The RACGP’s recent position statement on climate and health commits the college to advocating for mitigation and adaptation strategies for climate change, and to advocate for policies to protect human health from climate risks.
Cairns GP Dr Nicole Sleeman said the group of doctors under the Health Strike 4 Climate banner – mostly GPs – formed after the recent national election.
‘A bunch of us were highly concerned about our current government’s stance on climate change and the lack of action to mitigate it,’ she told newsGP.
‘We decided we needed to step up and make the health impacts of climate change more apparent to our leaders and the community. 
‘Climate change is the greatest health issue of the 21st century and Australia is very vulnerable to these impacts. We will see health impacts both clinically and across the entire health system.’
Dr Sleeman said the increasing danger of heatwaves represents a key early warning sign of climate impact on health, with older people, people with chronic disease, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people particularly at risk.
‘We are asking health professionals to join existing rallies around the country in the name of health. For people who can’t take time off, we ask they show their support by taking a photo outside their workplace holding a sign and posting it to social media,’ she said.
Some may ask whether it is too much of a stretch for GPs to advocate for climate action.
Dr Sleeman doesn’t think so.
‘Climate change affects health, so it’s part of our core business,’ she said. ‘Not to advocate wouldn’t fit with our jobs.’
newsGP asked other GPs from the Health Strike group why they feel the issue is so important.
Dr Sujata Allan – Armidale, New South Wales
I live and work in rural NSW, which is going through severe drought – several of the towns around my area have literally run out of water. This has an effect on the mental health of everyone, especially farmers who are under increasing financial stress. I see the mental health effects of drought every day.
I’ve been working on issues around climate change and health for several years, and see clearly that we can’t rely on our political leaders to tackle climate change; the science and expert advice has been blatantly ignored.
For Australia, taking a lead on climate change, which it is very well placed to do, we will need citizens and ordinary people standing up to demand action. Striking from work, even for a few hours, sends a clear message that climate change is a vitally important issue and requires urgent action.
Climate change is the biggest public health threat of our time and as health professionals we have a responsibility to protect and promote health, both on the individual patient level that we deal with every day, but also on the bigger picture population and public health level. The science is telling us that time is running out to keep global temperatures in a safe range; we need to urgently transition away from fossil fuels and other carbon-emitting industries.
Doctors and health professionals are respected voices in the community and have an opportunity to change the debate on climate change, and thus enable the social and political change that we need to tackle this issue.
Dr Richard Yin – Perth, Western Australia
There is a need for the medical profession to come together and collectively speak up about this public health emergency. As part of the health profession, we have the respect of the community and it is important that we show leadership on this issue.
This issue has been recognised by numerous health organisations, including the World Health Organization, as a public health emergency. The impacts to Australia will be catastrophic on our current emissions trajectory, with a predicted 3–-4 degrees of warming.
We have already warmed one degree above pre-industrial times and we are already seeing an increase in frequency of heatwaves and storms.
I think there is rising global concern for the issue and that is also reflected in the medical profession. People understand that we need to act urgently, as the timelines are short, if we are to prevent catastrophic warming. It is also becoming clear that the government is not doing enough so unless we stand up the status quo of inaction will prevail.
There is a moral injury we do to ourselves when we do not act. It is not in our nature as part of the caring profession to do nothing in the face of harm to others, especially children, those least responsible and yet most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Dr Rosalie Schultz – Alice Springs, Northern Territory
Climate change is the most serious threat to health that we face now and into the foreseeable future.
Seeing patients in the clinic is a very short-term response if we are driving climate change through our political stances and inaction, with our country continuing to mine and burn coal, oil and gas. We need to transition to sustainable energy, assist coalmine and other workers to sustainable employment, change our agricultural, food and land use practices and move towards active transport.
Our profession is beginning to act in a range of forms. This includes supporting GPs to reduce their personal and practice carbon emissions, educating themselves and others about mitigating and adapting to climate change, and supporting government at all levels to respond to climate change.
Dr Schultz is one of the authors of the RACGP’s recent position statement on climate change and human health.

advocacy climate change health heatwaves

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Ian Denness   29/08/2019 7:09:42 PM

Our RACGP, paid for by our annual subscriptions, has become a leftist political organisation, with health care somewhat included. Why have all of us, the 40,000 or so, not been specifically asked to vote on which policies 'our' organisation will push? It is as if many of us are purposefully either taken for granted, or ignored, so that those in leadership can follow their own agenda. Please, in complex issues such as this, at least give a broad overview of the conflicting data, instead of the ideological 'we are all one on this!'.

Sarah Mollard   29/08/2019 9:26:36 PM

Great to see the RACGP supporting GPs advocacy for strong action on the climate crisis.

David King   30/08/2019 1:51:34 PM

Indeed, so heartening to see the RACGP addressing climate change as a health issue, and ignoring the thirty years of delayed action on this threat, driving by economic self interest and partisan politics framing it as an ideological issue.

Katya Glogovska   30/08/2019 5:14:57 PM

It's great to see the RACGP acting in line with WHO, AMA and RACP, and supporting climate activism in GPs. Prevention is always better than cure, and I for one don't want to see more natural disasters, droughts and vector borne diseases!

Darshini Jeyaratnam   1/09/2019 8:44:56 AM

Wonderful to see the RACGP and my fellow GPs getting behind this. Part of our job as doctors is advocating for the health of the poor, the elderly, the very young - all of whom are disproportionately affected by the heatwaves that are happening with increasing frequency NOW every summer.

This is not a future threat, it is a current one.

Interesting to read of fossil fuel interests using the tactics of the tobacco industry to question the scientific consensus on climate change.

George Crisp   1/09/2019 8:45:43 AM

Like the science behind AGW, the health impacts of climate change - or more accurately climate breakdown - are now also "unequivocal" (IPCC 2018).

So RACGP - paid for by our annual subscriptions - is absolutely justified in responding accordingly to the threats to public health and our capacity to ensure good quality health care.