Humanity has been slow to grasp the implications of rising greenhouse gases and what they might do to the planet’s basic life-support systems.
One sector of the global community that is especially pleased to see climate change addressed is the health sector. The 2015 Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change galvanized us into thinking seriously about climate change and what it will mean for the health of the world’s population.
Climate change threatens the wonderful gains that have been achieved over the last century: we have brought millions out of poverty, increased access to clean water and food, and reduced global maternal and child mortality rates.
Predictions for more extreme weather events, more heatwaves, droughts, storm surges, and a change in the distribution of water-borne and vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and cholera, pose a significant health threat.
The World Health Organization predicts climate change will cause an additional 250 000 deaths per year from diarrhoea, heat stress, malaria and under-nutrition between 2030 and 2050. Notably it is women, children and the poor in low income countries who are the most vulnerable so there is a real urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
There are also some other health benefits from climate change actions. Currently, of the 56 million deaths per year, two thirds are from non-communicable diseases (diabetes, obesity, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, etc).
The good news is that many actions which reduce greenhouse emissions also help to prevent these diseases: using active transport options and eating local fresh food improve our health and reduce emissions.
At the Nossal Institute for Global Health at Melbourne, we have worked closely with GPs to explore how and why they might contribute to climate change solutions and advocacy.
Dr Janie Maxwell is exploring how GPs can balance their roles as clinicians and advocates. Dr Leah Watts is looking at how GPs can best promote healthy diets that are also good for the environment.
Our team, in a project led by Suzie Brown, have developed Sustainability Prescriptions: documented medical advice ‘prescribing’ actions that are good for individual health and also the environment.
It is interesting to observe that patients are much more motivated by health arguments than the environmental arguments to change their lifestyle and behaviour.
The health sector itself has a big role in being part of the transformation to a low carbon society. We have evaluated GP clinics who are keen to reduce their emissions through adopting the principles of a Green Clinic, which involves reducing energy, water and waste.
On a grander scale, University of Melbourne PhD Candidate Dr Forbes McGain has been exploring opportunities in the hospital sector and has found substantial gains to be made especially in the operating room which is an energy and waste intensive environment. For example, he has explored more efficient use of autoclave sterilisers and single use surgical instruments.
Climate change is an intergenerational issue. In Australia, our medical students have been leading the way, and are acutely aware that they are the future health workforce who will be managing the health fallout of climate change during their careers. Some of the students have even suggested new curriculum for medical schools on climate change and health which they see as essential to their education.
As the global health sector waits anxiously to see what Paris will bring, our hope is that the case for population health will help motivate international governments to avoid some of the worst health predictions for humanity.