Editorial by Patrick Walker, the Doctus Project
It is a bright, sunny afternoon in May, and Victoria’s hottest Autumn on record is drawing to a close. My colleague Jesse Schnall and I are waiting to meet with Dr John Iser, the Victorian Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA). DEA is a voluntary organisation made up of medical doctors from around Australia to address the threat climate change and environmental degradation pose to health. They work ‘to address…the diseases caused by damage to the Earth’s environment.’
Having both read the now famous 2009 Lancet report which concluded that climate change is the biggest threat to global health in the 21st century, we are intrigued to see what Dr Iser has to say on the issue. Does climate change really pose such a threat to our health? And if so, what should we – and our government – be doing about it?
As it happened, the very day we met with Dr Iser was the day the Australian government infamously had all mention of Australia removed from a major UN report on climate change. Our government had effectively censored a major international publication – which originally included a chapter dedicated to the Great Barrier Reef – in the name of ‘tourism’. Our conversation started here.
Scrubbing all mention of Australia in the report is ‘absolutely shameful’, Dr Iser began. ‘In many ways it shows the depths to which this government has sunk. Our elected party, and Malcolm Turnbull in particular, has moved away from belief in the importance of climate change and its relation to health, and is being pushed towards inaction.’
The decision to censor the report stirred controversy and outrage amongst the scientific community and general populace alike. It was said to be reminiscent of ‘the old Soviet Union’, and for many people betrayed a disturbing willingness of the government to sacrifice the environment in the name of economic gain.
As for the reason behind the decision, Dr Iser expressed concern that it was perhaps something more than just governmental inaction. ‘My hunch is that it is at least in part due to the influence of the fossil fuel industry – that’s the only reason that really makes sense to me.’
The notion that the fossil fuel industry holds considerable lobbying power within Australian politics is not new. ‘The fossil fuel industry donates millions of dollars to political parties, and in return it receives billions of dollars of subsidies. This money creates power, and that power is used to the detriment of our environment.’
Iser is spot on here: according to analysis from activist group 350.org, over the past three years fossil fuel companies have donated $3.7 million to the major parties, in return for an enormous $7.7 billion in federal subsidies. Note the change in degree of order: in return for millions of dollars, these companies are effectively receiving billions back.
This worries Dr Iser, and it creates a tendency towards pessimism about our future. With fossil fuels seemingly so entrenched in our political system, meaningful change might seem far away.
‘I think change will happen, but it may be too late. The majority of Australians now regard climate change as an important issue, but for the many people who do not wish to vote for the Greens or other minor parties, they are having to choose between voting for the environment and voting according to their political or ideological beliefs. Unfortunately, for those people who wish to vote for either of the two major parties, there is no other option.’
The link between climate change and health has been apparent for many years now, especially since the Lancet famously tagged it the greatest threat to health of this century. To many people, however, the nature of the link remains unclear.
The effects can be broadly split into immediate, direct effects, and the longer-term, more universal effects. Immediate effects include more frequent bushfires, heatwaves, droughts and other extreme weather events; spreading of tropical diseases further from the equator; interruptions in global supply chains and loss of habitable, fertile land. Over time, further effects begin to appear.
Crops and agricultural land are lost or damaged, reducing food supply and stability. The polar ice caps melt, leading to rising sea levels and loss of coastal regions and forcing millions of people out of their homes and communities. The many delicate ecosystems that make up our extraordinarily complex and interdependent natural world may begin to break down. These effects, amongst others, will affect countless people, and for many will represent an enormous threat to their health and very existence.
WHO has estimated that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250 000 additional deaths per year, predominantly from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. By 2030, this will come at a direct cost of US$2-4 billion per year. The indirect costs, due to those causes discussed above, will be much higher still.
The impact of climate change on global health is clear and undeniable. But where does Australia fit into all this? As a relatively small nation in terms of population, the absolute amount of carbon dioxide we emit is relatively small. However, our per capita emissions are among the world’s highest. So how great is our responsibility to act?
‘When considered alone and if we’re solely looking at absolute levels, Australia’s actions may indeed mean less than those of China or the US, for example. But that does not absolve us of responsibility. We are part of the global system, and as part of that global system we have a responsibility to reduce our emissions and make sure we are doing well internationally on a per capita basis.
‘Besides, this is in many ways a moral issue; we have a moral responsibility to do everything in our power to protect our environment and our world, for ourselves and for generations to come.’
On top of this, there is another factor to consider. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, exporting 70% of all the coal we produce. This means that we are indirectly contributing to much greater emissions than our national statistics show.
A recent Greenpeace report has shown that emissions from our coal exports account for almost double our total domestic emissions. Taking coal exports into account, instead of emitting 560 million tonnes of CO2 in 2016, the number would surpass 1.5 billion tonnes. This figure has risen 253% since 1990, and according to government projections, it will continue to rise by nearly two-thirds again by 2030.
We have a responsibility for this. The coal we send offshore is not burned in Australia, but – overseas or not – it is still burned. And it still releases carbon into the atmosphere. Exports form an important part of our economy, but they are also part of our contribution to global warming. We must accept this fact before we are to make real progress in working towards the global target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
Australia has a responsibility as an emitter, as an exporter, and as an influential nation equipped to sway the actions of other countries, particularly those in the Asia-Pacific region. We have seen much inaction, but slowly things are beginning to change.
And change they must. In the words of WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, ‘the evidence is overwhelming: climate change endangers human health. Solutions exist and we need to act decisively.’ If we don’t, our environment will suffer. And so will we.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Doctus Project.
Dr John Iser is Victorian Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia.
First published in the Doctus Project on 15 September 2016