The iDEA conference is an annual national conference of Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA). Run over two days with over 35 world-renowned speakers; engaging breakout workshops; and entertaining social nights with gourmet, ethically-sourced food; iDEA is the centrepiece of environmental health education and inspiration. iDEA unites medical professionals and students from around Australia “with one common goal – to address the human health impacts of the environment and climate change”, with a 2017 theme of “Global Problems, Local Solutions”.
Throughout the weekend, I was reminded of why our changing climate is indeed “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century”, affecting health both directly and indirectly.
The widely cited 2009 paper “A Commission on Climate Change” in The Lancet outlines the direct effects of climate change to be, namely; increased heat stress, floods, drought and increased frequency of intense storms. In a panel of College Presidents at iDEA17, Dr Bastian Seidel, President of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, outlined the direct impacts of climate change on human health through referencing his everyday experiences as a general practitioner; “General Practitioners (GPs) are true climate change witnesses. As a GP in Southern Tasmania, there is not a single day that patients don’t come in and tell me about the effects of climate change; droughts, bushfires, allergies, asthma”. Similarly, Dr Simon Judkins, President-Elect of the Australian College of Emergency Medicine, asserted that “climate change means that we are seeing bigger and more frequent large scale disasters, and emergency physicians are front and centre when it comes to responding to those events”.
In addition to the direct impacts of climate change on human health, there are also subtler, insidious, indirect effects. Some of these include air pollution, the spread of vector-borne diseases, food insecurity and under-nutrition, displacement and an increase in mental illness. Dr Helen Szoke, CEO of Oxfam, directed our attention to the recent WHO report on pollution and child health, a landmark study which found that more than 1 in 4 deaths of children under 5 years of age are attributed to unhealthy environments. Additionally, climate change could drive 122 million more people into extreme poverty by 2030 through its impact on increasing vector-borne diseases, food insecurity, increasing the number of climate refugees and respiratory disease through air pollution.
Dr Alessandro Demaio, Medical Doctor for the World Health Organization (WHO) and co-founder of NCD-Free, addressed the connection between obesity and climate change. This is a potentially hidden link, but one not to be ignored: if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest CO2 emitter. He emphasised the importance of collaboration on global issues such as obesity and climate change, “when it comes to NCDs and climate change, opportunities for co-mitigation are profound and unprecedented. Inaction cannot be an option.” He urged us to think laterally on the topic – both issues have similar causes and solutions, so how can we address them together through lobbying, policy change and targeted public health strategies?
In the face of impending “climate chaos”, as it was colloquially referred to throughout the conference, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the reality of climate change. Despite this, the speakers provided messages of hope and inspired action and empowerment through local solutions.
Coming from a refreshingly non-medical perspective, Tim Buckley, one of Australia’s top financial energy analysts, provided an overview of the progress our neighbours in India and China are making in the renewable energy market . He outlined the importance of knowing your audience – the motivation behind these nations’ transition to renewables wasn’t for health reasons, but economic reasons in India (considering renewables cost 80% of what it costs to import fuel) and population-driven air quality concerns in China. Buckley highlighted the financial stability and success these nations have had since leading the way in renewables and why it makes economic sense for Australia to follow suit. Focusing the light on Australian shores, Dr Roger Dargaville from the Melbourne Energy Institute outlined the need for robust policy and strategic direction for the Australian energy market, if we are to move towards renewables and avoid further energy demand issues like the recent South Australian energy crises.
Changing Perspectives and Summary
I took away a bigger picture of how we conceptualise climate change, and left thinking that we need to change our perspective to achieve true change. What makes climate change so difficult to comprehend is the lack of a clear, single perpetrator; it doesn’t have a face. Without oversimplifying complex issues, it is clear that, for example, when we want to blame someone for the obesity epidemic we think of big corporate companies like Coco Cola or McDonalds. When we want to blame someone for displaced people and mass migrations, we think of war and governments.
With climate change, it isn’t as easy to play the blame game. We can’t easily point the finger at someone or something and say “this is the reason why; this is the cause”. Because we can’t readily shift the blame onto something easily identifiable, it makes the issue less tangible and more challenging to connect with. There is nowhere to direct the anger and frustration at the catastrophic changes we are seeing around us, the natural response is to either disconnect with the issue, or to feel overwhelmed with despair and subsequently be driven to inaction.
In truth, we should be pointing the finger at is ourselves. As was made abundantly clear at the conference and in countless articles and reviews presented by the wider scientific community, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that climate change is largely human driven, and thus we must take responsibility.
Yes, we are a large part of the cause. But if I learned anything over the weekend, it is that we can also drive the solution. In the words of Dr Helen Szoke, “the mission that you sign up to when you become a doctor means that you have a responsibility to assist humanity…climate change is a big part of that.” There needs to be a shift of focus from the negative outcomes of climate change, towards the positive ways we can address it. We need to stop seeing it as an issue and start seeing it as a potential for change and act in the infinite ways the speakers outlined at iDEA. While it is the biggest threat to our species and planet, climate change could also be “the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century”.
The evening before the conference commenced, I was honored to hear from human rights lawyer Julian Burnside AO QC, who eloquently stated; “to remain silent is as much a political act as to speak out”. This simple idea is as applicable to climate change and human health as ever; the health impacts of climate change are direct and indirect, immediate and long term, both overt and subtle. We must have a global perspective on the issue, but also the willingness to act locally to create sustainable and tangible change to protect the health of our planet and our people. It is our responsibility as informed, ethically-minded health professionals to act now. In the words of Dr Stephen Parnis, ex-AMA Vice President “prevention and mitigation is always better than reaction and recovery – as doctors, we have an obligation to talk and act on climate change”.
Isobelle is a third year Doctor of Medicine student at UNDS, currently completing her clinical years in Melbourne. She is also the AMSA Code Green Co-National Project Manager and is passionate about empowering people to mitigate the health effects of climate change. Her other areas of interest include mental health and wellbeing, nutrition and behavioural change strategies.
Conflict of Interest
- Doctors for the Environment Australia. iDEA17 Conference DEA2017 [Available from: https://www.dea.org.au/idea2017/.
- The Lancet. A Commission on climate change. The Lancet. 2009;373(9676):1659.
- Inheriting a sustainable world? Atlas on children’s health and the environment. Geneva: World Health Organisation, 2017.
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Food wastage footprint; impacts on natural resources (summary report). Natural Resources Management and Environment Department, United Nations, 2013.
- Buckley T. IEEFA Update: China Is Now Three Years Past Coal. IEEFA, 2017 Feburary 28, 2017. Report No.
- Tan JAMH. Economics: Manufacture renewables to build energy security. Nature. 2014;513(7517).
- McMichael AJ. Globalization, Climate Change, and Human Health. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2013;386:1335-43.
- Nick Watts et al. Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health. The Lancet. 2015;386(10006):1861 – 914.