Stepping Up

The following article first appeared in the AMSA publication Panacea (2013, edition 1).  It appears below with AMSA’s kind permission.

“So… why did you choose medicine?”

“Oh, I want to help people.”

Great!  There is no better reason.  Maybe not everyone entered their course with this idea clear in their head.  But I sure hope it’s at the top of your list now, or at least high up.

But how exactly are you going to help people?  And when?

Will you adjust tablets to control blood pressure?  Will you give resuscitation in ED?  Will you coax appendices out of minute incisions?  Will you counsel patients with major depression?  Perhaps you’ll venture out to disadvantaged communities to ply and share your skills with people who need them most.  (If so, more power to you!)

All these things will come at the end of your degree.  But how would you like to do something that will help to protect the health and welfare of billions of people around the world for generations to come… right now?

We are in the Critical Decade for our climate.  Last year the World Bank reported that current energy practices are likely to lead to a mean global temperature rise of 4˚C by the end of this century, and even more beyond.  Unless we act, the consequences will be nothing short of devastating for our planet and the human race: metres of sea level rise, inundation of coastal cities, displacement and conflict, crop failures, famine, major cyclones, droughts, floods, fires, and increases in heat-related illnesses and the spread of infectious diseases.  Indeed, the World Bank warns that there is “no certainty that adaptation to a 4˚C world is possible”.  The Lancet and University College London certainly weren’t kidding in 2009 when they identified climate change as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”.  And already today in Australia we are seeing warmer days, more severe heatwaves, bushfires and floods.

In short, it’s a big problem.  Fortunately, there is a solution.  You.

I’m not just talking about riding bikes, switching off lights and eating vegetarian.  All those things help, but focusing on them exclusively keeps the spotlight on us as individuals and away from the institutions that prosper under the status quo.  We need to understand the problem individually, but we need to address it collectively.  Why do our politicians drag their feet in drafting significant policies to address this emergency?  Why does our media give equal or greater coverage to climate change deniers when the proportion of scientists agreeing on it is over 97%?  Simply put, it is because large industries have enormous interests in keeping it that way, and they’re not afraid to exercise their power.

But things are changing.  A movement of fossil fuel divestment has sprung up across the United States.  Following student and community campaigns, six universities and colleges, 16 city councils and ten religious institutions have pledged to freeze and wind down all their investments in the coal, oil and gas companies that commercialise our planet’s destruction.  The movement is still building and has spread to Australia, where university groups are campaigning and the Uniting Church Synod of NSW and the ACT has also committed to divest.  Now is our chance to turn around our society’s dangerous environmental trajectory, starting with our own social institutions.

To help make this kind of change, I’ve joined Doctors for the Environment Australia, a national association of medical students and doctors dedicated to addressing the health risks imposed by damage to our environment.  At a student level, we have a network of members around most medical schools in Australia running seminars, meetings, film screenings, actions and our annual conference.  Visit if you’d like to join and get in touch with your state representative.  If there isn’t yet a group at your university, there should be, and you can make it happen.  We would love your help – we are all responsible for what happens to our world, and everyone can make a big difference.

We are medical students, and we will be doctors.  We are among the academic elite.  We are trained to critically evaluate information and make difficult decisions in the face of uncertainty.  Most importantly, we have the trust of the public that we will do our best to serve the interests of everyone.

We are ideally placed to lead our world to a healthy future.

Let’s make the most of it.

Harry Jennens

(Harry is the Victorian Student Representative for Doctors for the Environment Australia.

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