The following is a report of the Conference organised by Doctors for the Environment Australia at MelbourneUniversity in March this year and it makes sensible reading. Note the contributions by our pollies.
iDEA Conference Report 2014
March 2014 saw four hundred doctors, and medical students from all over Australia come together for the iDEA14 conference, Australia’s national climate change and health conference, run by Doctors For The Environment Australia (DEA), to address the health impacts of fossil fuels and anthropogenic climate change.
iDEA14 was sold out, with the largest turn out in the conference’s history, and held at The Spot, the University of Melbourne’s new certified 5 Star “Green Star” building, built with a focus on sustainability and energy efficiency. The professional and environmentally conscious nature of the venue, as well as the delicious vegan food provided, aptly reflected the values of the conference.
Through an incredibly impressive line-up of eminent speakers, experts in their respective fields of science, health, economics and politics, iDEA14 offered a spectacular opportunity to gain the latest, evidence-based data regarding climate change and its widespread health and psychosocial implications, and the required actions.
The enthusiasm, passion and engagement of the delegates reflected the profound concern mounting in the medical community about the health impacts of climate change and the subsequent urgent need for climate action, as advised by international scientific authorities.
A key message resonated at the conference. Climate change is already and will increasingly be a profound threat to human health. The research is as terrifying as it is abundant, clearly documenting, quantifying and analysing the health impacts currently being seen in Australia and across the globe.
Professor Kingsley Faulkner opened the conference by placing the context of climate change in Australia and the world for our generation, “All generations have their challenges – ours is environmental. Australia can lead the world in this area like we have done with tobacco control. However, currently we are falling behind drastically.” Distinguished speakers throughout the conference reiterated the message, that climate change is the critical issue facing our world and our health, and, “it has never been more important to act”.
Professor David Griggs and Professor Tim Flannery provided the latest international science updates on climate change. Scientists report that human-induced climate change is “unequivocal”. Carbon dioxide levels are now at an unprecedented high in the atmosphere, from the last 600,000 years, and most significantly have increased at an unprecedented speed. Delegates learnt we are on track for increasing global temperatures >2 degrees, resulting in catastrophic impacts. In the first 13 years of this century as a world we have used 40% of the carbon dioxide emissions that scientists have deemed safe to use in first 50 years of this century. Professor Flannery highlighted that we are currently tracking the worst-case scenario for how the world will be at 2050.
Professor Griggs demonstrated the stark, sobering human relevance of the scientific data and projections by presenting a graph which showed our lifespan in contrast to carbon dioxide emissions and current impacts, followed by the climate change predicted for the next generation, our children, followed by the state of the world predicted with our current use of fossil fuels, which our hypothetical grandchildren will be faced with.
Professor Tim Flannery ran through current and future projected climate change impacts. Excuses for inadequate action in Australia ring increasingly hollow as Australia is already facing pertinent threats of health from climate change, through increasing intensity and frequency of heatwaves, fires, lethal floods, compromised water supplies, severe mental health burden through loss of livelihood with the droughts, worsened air quality as a result of fossil fuel burning and fires, and only 50% of the Great Barrier Reef surviving the onslaught of coral bleaching. Our wettest December on record in 2010 saw 78% of Queensland declared a disaster zone. This summer 156 weather records broke in Australia, with heatwaves occurring earlier and for longer duration, with a steep rise in mortality and stress on the healthcare system. Professor Flannery also warned of the silent killer for Australia – sea level rise, of which a certain amount is becoming built in and inevitable with a certain amount of warming.
Associate Professor Linda Selvey expanded these impacts to encompass the wider world. The severity of the current extensive, indiscriminate, global health impacts of climate change proved shocking, heightening the frustration of many at the current lack of meaningful action of climate change from the current Australian government.
We have witnessed the horrors of the recent typhoon in the Philippines, blizzards in the northern hemisphere, wave surges across the British coast, rising sea levels in the Pacific Islands encroaching on people’s homes and lives, Bangladesh’s water table rising affecting water supplies and worsened air quality with pollution causing 1/4 million premature deaths and being driving cause of birth defects in China.
Associate Professor Selvey also demonstrated how food and water security, fundamental to health in any corner of the globe, are already being compromised as a result of climate change. August 2010’s massive flood in Pakistan covered one third of the area of Pakistan, affecting 20 million people. Poor subsidence farmers were most affected, with 40% of livestock killed and widespread crop destruction, leaving 7.8 million people vulnerable to food insecurity. The following year in 2011 saw more flooding with 73% of crops in affected areas destroyed. The country was left destitute and without a chance to recover from the initial flood atrocities.
In addition, one billion people don't currently have access to safe drinking water. This issue is being compounded by climate change, which impacts water availability and quality, hygiene and water borne diseases. January to June 2011 saw global drought hit the northern hemisphere, with the water cycle disrupted due to rising temperatures and prominent water sources such as the Himalayan water sources becoming increasingly dryer, increasing the risk of crop failure and ecological collapse. Diminishing arable lands in Africa are also worsening existing malnutrition, famine and poverty.
Food and water insecurity have the potential to lead to civil unrest and mass migration, an enormous cause of security concerns. In addition, environmental refugees are predicted to be in the millions, due to extreme weather events encroaching on the liveability of various corners of the world. With no UN convention for their rights, issues of justice and international unrest become prominent.
Dr Kate Charlesworth described climate change as a “regressive problem”, whereby those that contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions, and with the least resources to adapt to the consequences, such as children, the elderly and socially disadvantaged, are often affected first and the hardest, further widening health inequalities and social injustices. Professor Fiona Stanley spoke about the impacts on children’s health, a cause for deep concern.
Associate Professor Selvey provided a timely reminder of our belonging to the wider world – a diverse, global community, connected by the same atmosphere and intrinsically interconnected climactic system. Associate Professor Selvey’s broad and compassionate talk highlighted the importance of recognising the impact of our actions here in Australia on the rest of the world, as we remain the second largest exporter of coal globally. Professor Selvey described Australia’s current inaction on climate change reflects a “lost sense of ourselves as global citizens”, as we fail our fellow human beings in countries already being severely and repeatedly affected by climate change, to which fossil fuels are the predominant driver. Echoed also by Dr Kate Charlesworth, acting on climate change by transitioning away from fossil fuels is therefore a justice issue, responding to the needs of humanity, now and increasingly into the future.
CURRENT SITUATION IN AUSTRALIA
Professor Ross Garnaut outlined Australia has missed a lot of early deadlines for strong global action on climate change. China and the United States have agreed to work together for a strong outcome at the next UN meeting in 2015, whilst Australia continues to “move backwards”. As the largest emitter of carbon dioxide per capita, and second largest exporter of coal in the world, Australia has a global responsibility to take climate action seriously and start transforming our economy away to renewable energy technologies. Currently however we are facing a crisis point. Mark Ogge explained that this is an incredible moment in history. Australia is ironically looking to expand the fossil fuel industry in Australia, at the juxtaposition of abundant, evidence-based data urging urgent action on climate change and a transition away from fossil fuels as fast as possible given the already apparent dreadful, unprecedented global impacts of climate change. Australia’s recent approvals of gas fields and coalmines, such as at Maules Creek in NSW, in light of the latest health evidence, remains a source of absolute disbelief, and appears to disregard and undermine the health of Australians and our fellow humans overseas.
A great analogy was provided at the conference. If a doctor were to make decisions without complying the latest evidence base and scientific consensus, they are liable for malpractice and legal ramifications. Such negligence, as displayed by our Government’s deliberate expansion of the fossil fuel industry in Australia, in the realm of profound local as well as global implications (given that our atmosphere is a global phenomenon) is hard to comprehend and must be contested.
During the Political Q&A all three major parties demonstrated awareness of the scientific consensus about climate change and the importance of action. However the stark contrast between parties became apparent when discussing what action they deemed to be required to address this global crisis. The Honourable Greg Hunt made no mention of renewable energy and opted to focus on carbon sequestration and “cleaning up coal”, in spite of the lack of scientific rigor of these techniques. In contrast, The Honourable Mark Butler and Richard Di Natalie explained the need for renewable energy, a cleaner transport system and ambitious targets in carbon emissions reduction.
Professor David Griggs emphasised, “It is not a political statement that we need to do more; it’s a scientific statement.” A clear message resounded, “The atmosphere is agnostic about how we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, what matters is the magnitude of this reduction.”
A clear direction emerged from the conference. Urgent, effective action on climate change is paramount to protect the health of our current and future populations and renewable energy is a viable, sustainable solution in Australia, from an economic and a short and long-term health perspective.
According to scientists, to secure a safe and healthy future, this is the critical decade. Professor Tim Flannery utilised a medical analogy of the golden hour concept of stroke therapy. It is paramount that Australia and the world rapidly reduces greenhouse gas emissions this decade, otherwise it will be very difficult to mitigate the damage caused. Phil Harrington echoed this critical issue, “Every year of delay (in climate action) means the trajectory we have to follow gets harder”.
The economic and scientific consensus at iDEA14 was that Australia must rapidly phase out the use of fossil fuels, and switch to renewable energy, with inspiration and successful models available from around the world, such as New Zealand, Spain and Portugal with over 70% of their energy produced by renewable resources, and Scotland recently announcing a target for 100% renewable energy by 2020!
Phil Harrington explained a realistic goal for Australia is to reduce emissions by 90% by 2050. It would impose some costs, but these are low, particularly in comparison to the immense costs of climate-change related damage and destruction, such as in 2009 in Queensland when August received over 37 degree temperatures, which destroyed Queensland wheat and cost wheat growers 160 million dollars. A renewable economy would create jobs, ultimately save money from mitigating climate damage and reposition our failing industries of the new technologies of clean energy and exporting these expertise to the world. Phil Harrington provided the stark reality, “An honest assessment of climate risks would lead any responsible government to treat climate change as a matter of highest national priority.”
Mark Ogge outlined that renewable energy sources are a big part of the solution to climate change. “We are lucky we know the cause – the diagnosis has been made – and we are able to deal with it with renewable energy solutions as the treatment – not just theoretical but commercially competitive and ready to be pulled off the shelf and used! This is our lifeline and thread of hope.” This however also adds to the tragedy when such tangible, necessary action is delayed and denied. Economically renewable energy is also very competitive, even with fossil fuels, with huge cost reductions and wind energy now cheaper to build than fossil fuels in Australia, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Australians are rapidly adopting renewable energy with 1.2 million households having solar PV installed. Political leadership is now required to support large scale renewables in Australia. With the most solar radiation of any continent on Earth, and the current technology, renewable energy in solar thermal and wind could provide 100% of Australia’s power by 2030, according to AEMO (Australian Energy Marketing Operator), with electricity costing consumers the same as fossil fuels at that time under business as usual.
However without adequate support of the emerging renewables industry in Australia, as currently is occurring with the government’s attempt to dismantle and repeal these laws, the renewable technological advances will be shelved. To all of our detriment.
Policy is vital in driving a reduction in emissions, with more ambitious reduction targets required in Australia, given the effectiveness of the climate policies put in place with minimal cost to Australians, as outlined by Professor Ross Garnaut, esteemed international economist. Given that the heart of the problem is fossil fuel burning, the need for a price on carbon, strong policy to support renewables, such as the renewable energy target and ambitious targets to reduce fossil fuel emissions were echoed, as introduced in 2012 in the Clean Energy Bill, which effectively reduced emissions at a negative cost, unlike predicted by opponents. The policies “caused a reversal of a powerful upward trend in emissions, for the first time after many decades of rapid rising”, at reasonable cost, “an achievement of historical importance!” The renewable energy target also created 18 billion dollars for the industry and 30,000 jobs and was the most successful emission reduction scheme.
Phil Harrington gave a refreshing stance. “The economy is for serving us, not destroying the planet we rely on for life.”
Charlie Wood, from 350.org led by the inspiration Bill McKibben, provided information regarding the divestment movement, another strategic opportunity to combat the political deadlock that the fossil fuel industry currently assert, as was effectively utilised in the fight against the South Africa apartheid and tobacco industry. Divestment plays a crucial role in removing the social licence of the industry, and ensuring we, and our trusted public institutions and banks, are not unknowingly funding climate change, given that the big four banks have loaned 19 billion dollars to fossil fuel projects since 2008. We are thus in a powerful position to affect change, and can help others be part of that positive change. As well as morally, prudent investors are realising the compelling economic risk posed by stranded assets, of which there are 22 trillion dollars worth, and by screening out fossil fuel companies on the stock exchange, there has been shown to be no added risk to one’s portfolio.
ROLE AS DOCTORS
How does this urgent need for actions fit into our scope and work as medical students and doctors? “Climate change will affect, in profoundly adverse ways, some of the most fundamental determinants of health… we need champions throughout the world who will work to put protecting human health at the centre of the climate change agenda” – Margaret Chan, Director, World Health Organisation
Given the immense health impacts of climate change, and the fact that the consequences of ineffective, insufficient action on climate change on health will be overwhelmingly negative regarding health and burden on the heath care system, doctors and medical students have both the opportunity and responsibility to advocate for protecting the health of our current and future generations from the profound risks our present climate change trajectory poses.
Doctors also have the potential to be highly effective advocates as seen with doctors leading the way with tobacco reform.
The importance of framing and understanding climate change as a health issue was clear at iDEA14, to ensure ‘climate change’ is not only publically associated with abstract, complex atmospheric concepts, but that its inextricable link with human health is made apparent.
Successful, tangible examples of sustainable healthcare were provided by Dr Kate Charlesworth and Dr Forbes McGain, Dr Sally Forrest provided guidance regarding avenues and opportunities to develop the skills and incorporate a passion for environmental advocacy in health, given the critical importance of a healthy environment in attaining and maintaining health. Professor Rob Moodie provided tools and avenues for having our voice heard, with the key message of persistence in this skewed debate, and Professor Kerry Arabena provided an energising, fresh perspective, provoking thought and reflection surrounding how we define ill-health and health, to expand this view to incorporate ecosystems, given that the environment is integral in human health and wellbeing. “Human health must be put in this context” of the environment, our life source. Although the central role of the environment in health seems intuitive i.e. that the environment is our source of water and oxygen, it appears to be overlooked as we continue to exploit it.
Dr Kate Charlesworth highlighted the tremendous opportunity for health co-benefits of transitioning a renewable economy. Dr Charlesworth explained the importance of seeing action on climate change part of our responsibility and mandate as health professionals. Collectively we can be a voice for the voiceless and an authority in the field of health impacts of climate change. Dr Charlesworth also inspired the delegates to remain positive, and help others to be able to envisage the solution of a sustainable world and the synergy that provides.
iDEA14 provided skill building, to facilitate the crucially required action and advocacy, through the pre-conference workshops, which introduced delegates to theories of change presented by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and public engagement strategies presented by Beyond Zero Emissions, and practical workshops regarding the power of story, strategies to transition to a just and sustainable world and how to effectively communicate climate change and health issues to other health professionals.
The conference fostered discussion and broad thinking through question time featuring an anonymous text number to pose questions to the speaker. This, along with the break times, an entertaining social event and science-related comedy function, and break-out sessions on the final afternoon, allowed the delegates to meet active, like-minded people from across the country and strategise and plan actions for the upcoming year.
We can transform climate change from the greatest health challenge, which transcends international boundaries and will affect everyone in varying degrees, to the biggest health opportunity, through the co-benefits of sustainability as well as preventing or mitigating dangerous, unadaptable climate change.
Kate Lardner, medical student and this esteemed conference’s convenor, closed the conference with the importance of teamwork in being able to overcome such an enormous, global struggle such as is climate change. The poignant quote provided by Dr Eugenie Kayak, “The future is not somewhere we are going, it’s something we are creating” – Ian Lowe, reflected the hope that still exists in spite of the frightening current trajectory we face.
iDEA14 encouraged and facilitated the medical community’s deep concern at the gravity of the climate change crisis to be transformed to motivation and skills to help re-shape the future direction of humanity to a sustainable, healthy and just society and world.