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Health at centre of climate change action

15 Apr 2014

There has been a rallying call for doctors to be at the forefront of action to combat climate change following the release of a United Nations report highlighting the dire health effects of a sustained rise in global temperatures.

In a strongly-worded editorial, the British Medical Journal said the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirmed the conclusion of the Lancet/UCL Commission that climate change was “the greatest threat to human health of the 21st century”.

“Those who profess to care for the health of people perhaps have the greatest responsibility to act,” the BMJ editorial said. “If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change and bequeath a sustainable planet worth living on, we must push, as individuals and as a profession, for a transformed, sustainable and fair world.”

In its report, the IPCC found that in the next 40 years the main health effect of climate change will be to exacerbate existing health problems, including to extend the range of diseases such as food-borne infections and increase rates of malnutrition through more intense droughts, storms and other climatic events.

It warned that if projected climate change scenarios proved accurate, there was a very high likelihood of more deadly and destructive heatwaves and fires, increased malnutrition, and greater incidence of food, water and vector-borne disease.

The Panel said these effects might be partially offset by a fall in deaths due to cold temperatures and geographical shifts in food production, but added that “these positive effects will be increasingly outweighed by the magnitude and severity of the negative effects of climate change”.

It warned that, left unchecked, climate change would eventually push temperatures in some parts of the world beyond the capacity of the human body to thermoregulate, making outdoor manual labour virtually impossible at the hottest times of the year.

The BMJ said there had already been an estimated average temperature rise of 0.89 degrees Celsius since 1901, and on current trends carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will more than double to 936 parts per million by the end of the century, with a 50 per cent chance this will result in a temperature increase of more than four degrees Celsius.

“This is an emergency,” the BMJ said. “Immediate and transformative action is needed at every level.”

Promisingly, the IPCC said that action that would help lessen the extent and severity of climate change would also improve health.

Activities with such “co-benefits” included cutting air pollution, providing universal access to reproductive health services, shifting consumption away from animal products, particularly red meat, and reducing reliance on cars and other motorised transport and promoting walking, cycling and other physical activity.

The Lancet said “the health co-benefits of action on climate change could be very large. For instance, a reduction of emissions of methane and black carbon might directly prevent two to two-and-a-half million deaths per year worldwide”.

The IPCC’s latest report came as health experts called for tougher vehicle emissions standards in Australia.

In a report released in late 2012, the AMA highlighted the health effects of air pollution, especially very fine particulate matter, and a Senate committee was told last year that the country needed to urgently tackle to threat posed by particulate in diesel exhaust.

European countries will adopt strict new Euro 6 standards in September that require a five-fold reduction in fine diesel particles in exhaust, whereas Australia has only begun to adopt the current Euro 5 standard.

Adrian Rollins 


Published: 15 Apr 2014