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11 Oct 2019

BY PROFESSOR STEPHEN LEEDER, EMERITUS PROFESSOR, PUBLIC HEALTH, UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg arrives in New York for UN climate summit

Friday, September 20 was a magnificent late summer’s day in New York – crystal-blue sky and 28 degrees – like that almost 18 years ago when two early morning-flight passenger jets roared over Manhattan into the twin towers, killing 3,000. 

At Battery Park, close to where the twin towers stood, tens of thousands of school children and supporters gathered that Friday to protest and express concern about the threat to human existence posed by global heating. By chance, I was in Manhattan and gained a clear sense of the strong motivation of the students. The seasonal conjunction of the 9/11 anniversary and the children’s protest over what they perceive as impending catastrophe did not escape one or two commentators.

The focal point in the New York protest was an address from Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who arrived in New York harbor from Plymouth, England, on Wednesday August 28 aboard the Malizia II, an 18-metre racing yacht that uses solar panels and underwater generator turbines to avoid producing carbon emissions. She self-identifies as having Asperger’s syndrome. She avoids air travel because of its pollution. She is taking a sabbatical year from school. Her personal crusade started with a "School Strike for Climate" outside her national parliament in Stockholm in August last year.  (Google ‘Thunberg TED talk’ to hear her.)  The Guardian wrote:

For the first time since the school strikes for climate began last year, young people called on adults to join them – and they were heard. Trade unions representing hundreds of millions of people around the world mobilised in support, employees left their workplaces, doctors and nurses marched and workers at firms like Amazon, Google and Facebook walked out to join the climate strikes.

In the estimated 185 countries where demonstrations took place, the protests often had their individual targets; from rising sea levels in the Solomon Islands, toxic waste in South Africa, to air pollution and plastic waste in India and coal expansion in Australia.

But the overall message was unified – a powerful demand for an urgent step-change in action to cut emissions and stabilise the climate.

The week following the student strike and protest march, the United Nations General Assembly in NYC devoted time and attention to the same subject. Greta addressed the United Nations Climate Action Summit, hosted by Secretary General António Guterres on September 23 – and not attended by Donald Trump or Scott Morrison – this time calling in extremely strong emotional terms for action.

The science of climate change is ultra-complex. Those who maintain a negative view about the reality of global heating can legitimately claim that all that we would like to know is not yet known and that the sheer complexity of the science makes it inaccessible to critical appraisal. This matters. Leading Harvard environmental economist Martin Weitzman, 77, who died in August this year by suicide, considered that there were major limitations imposed on economic models of the effects of climate change because, as The Economist tells it, ‘the sensitivity of global surface temperature of atmospheric carbon dioxide remains uncertain’ so that even if we might cope with steady rises in temperature, ‘a cataclysmic event, such as global warming over six degrees Centigrade remains worryingly possible.’

Those who maintain that fluctuating global temperature is natural and not man-made have an uphill battle to establish their case when the observational data about temperature trends are examined and the upward movement revealed in secular trends of principal indicators such as atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and ambient temperature.  

Strong advocates call for urgent action because of the rising levels of greenhouse gases that diminish the ability of the planet to return reflected sunlight and locally-produced heat into space. Bill McKibben, an American environmental author and activist, quotes his latest book, Falter, from climate scientists in asserting that

The extra heat that we trap near the planet because of the [extra] carbon dioxide we spew out is equivalent to the heat from 400,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs each day, or four each second.

What to do? The socially-embedded nature of the industrial processes that generate greenhouse gases, like the social determinants of health more generally, limits the actions. As with achieving an accurate understanding of why obesity is such a global problem, we need to dig deep into what motivates society and what moral and economic distortions make society obesogenic – and susceptible to heating. The contribution of greed and economic gluttony to the changing climate is immense. 

Because these causes lie so deep in society, to change the behaviours that underpin global warming is a gargantuan task. Making one ton of concrete releases one ton of carbon dioxide. McKibben claims that social science research shows that peaceful protest, however, has double the chance of achieving change compared to violent protest except during civil war.

Humanity is amazingly resilient and human history may yet accommodate a chapter on what we did to recover from global heating. Carbon capture may yet turn cement manufacture into a climate friend. Perhaps a seemingly miraculous technological fix will emerge – a kind of environmental statin. The New Yorker carried an entertaining essay in its September 30 issue about multibillion-dollar efforts underway to develop hamburger substitutes made from vegetables. Perhaps nuclear generation of electricity will be achieved cheaply and safely at scale and displace fossil fuel. Storage of electricity generated by wind, water or sun may become cheap and accessible. While most of these efforts are directed at reduced greenhouse gas emissions, the risks of catastrophic disruptions, as Weitzman argued, remain.

But for those of us in medicine, we must plan our health services for a hotter, less hospitable world. Alongside such realistic preparation we can support the peaceful efforts of those who advocate for greater environmental sensitivity, accountability, and humility. 


Published: 11 Oct 2019