Climate change is a health emergency, RACGP declares

Doug Hendrie

19/12/2019 4:33:08 PM

The college has joined other major medical colleges and organisations in raising the alarm over the current and growing impact of climate change.

Climate change
The RACGP believes it is important for GPs to understand the causes, health risks and consequences of climate change.

The formal recognition that climate change is a health emergency comes after the RACGP earlier this year put out a position statement recognising climate change as a ‘key public health issue’ and outlining many climate-health risks.  
The RACGP believes it is important for GPs to understand the causes, health risks and consequences of climate change, as well as mitigation and adaption measures at individual and population levels. It has vowed to advocate for policies protecting human health from climate-change risks at all levels of government.
Dr Lara Roeske, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests, told newsGP she is pleased at the announcement.
‘There is a substantive and compelling body of medical and scientific evidence supporting the position that this is a health emergency,’ she said.
‘In Australia, strong voices are calling for the mitigation of climate impacts on the health of current and future generations, including in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, rural and remote communities.
‘We acknowledge the serious threats posed to the health of children, older Australians and those in rural and remote communities. Climate change disproportionately affects the health of Australians with asthma, respiratory conditions and heart disease. The research demonstrates that women are at higher risk of death from climate change, in particular from climate-change-linked natural disasters.’
Dr Roeske said more deaths from heatwaves can be expected, with young generations likely to have their mental health affected.
Health impacts in Australia are also likely to include more deaths from the spread of infectious disease such as malaria and dengue, with diarrheal illnesses also expected to grow.
‘This is a signal to our members and to our patients and communities that GPs recognise climate change as a health emergency and are ready to respond to the multiple health challenges ahead,’ Dr Roeske said.
‘We believe the Australian Government should recognise and help address the health impacts of climate change.’
The announcement move comes after the 2019 Lancet Countdown catalogued the many ways in which health will be affected by climate change, ranging from natural disasters to reduced crop yields to lost work hours.
Dr Roeske said the RACGP Specific Interests Environmental Impacts in General Practice network is a useful resource for members who want to be supported and prepared for the health challenges looming in the era of climate change. Network Chair Dr Jessica Kneebone told newsGP the move represents a ‘really positive step’.
‘This sends a message that the RACGP is committed to taking action and that we see this as a serious health threat,’ she said.
‘We know that climate change already causes poorer health outcomes with heatwaves, food security and vector ecology. We’re seeing these events already.
‘The smoke and terrible air quality in Sydney over the last few weeks shows we’re living it right now. We need to step up right now to take action.’
Dr Kneebone said doctors can play a valued leadership role and use their voice in the community.
‘There’s good evidence that people don’t understand the health impacts of climate change,’ she said. ‘Once they do, it’s a really powerful motivator to seeing it as a threat and taking action.
‘This is not just an environmental issue – it’s a health issue. Once you understand that, it’s more likely to galvanise action.’
The RACGP’s position statement notes that GPs play a key role in identifying, reducing and managing adverse health effects of climate change on Australians and the international community.
The role includes identifying patients who are particularly at risk from heat and ensuring patients have access to public health advice, promoting urgent mitigation action, leading responses to the burden of chronic disease.

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Dr Virangi Shanika Rajini Fernando   20/12/2019 7:33:45 AM

We have started to see the health impacts of climate change now. Climate change is real and it’s happening right now in front of our own eyes.
Worsening upper and lower respiratory problems, specially asthma and COPD, due to poor air quality and second degree burns to skin due to sunburn are just to name a few cases I came across while on a locum at a remote location recently.
Heath impacts will be immense in the years to come.
It is important for RACGP as a governing body to provide leadership to all the GPs around the country to be prepared for their challenges due to climate change.
Preventative Health strategies can play an important role and GPS are at the forefront of delivering this. Not forgetting mental health of ever increasing number of victims of natural disasters and carers of disaster victims.

Dr Belinda Therese Ford   20/12/2019 11:32:14 AM

Thank you for making this declaration. I hope we can follow it up with meaningful action that will put pressure on the government to address the issue with more urgency.