Changes in the Earth’s climate system are inextricable from their effects on human health. Indeed, a commission by The Lancet in 2009 recognised climate change as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century” and the World Health Organization has described climate change as “the defining issue” for public health. Above and beyond the minimisation of climatic hostility, actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change have substantial health benefits. Meaningfully addressing the causes and implications of climate change is a momentous opportunity to improve the health of communities globally.
What’s Code Green?
Code Green aims to provide a platform from which medical students and doctors can educate, engage and inspire colleagues and the wider community to act now to prevent the worst health consequences of climate change. The Code Green National Project began through a partnership between Australian Medical Student Association (AMSA) Think Tank and Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), and liases broadly with community organisations internationally.
In acting through Code Green, Australian medical students and doctors join an international community of health leaders taking action on climate change. In 2015, Code Green shall be focusing on two key action areas:
- The Climate Change and Health advocacy campaign, focusing on the build up towards negotiations in Paris in December 2015.
- Personal and organisational fossil fuel divestment.
What are the health impacts of climate change?
Human health, an interaction between our genetics and our environment, is inseparable from the climate in which we exist. The health effects of climate change are thus many and varied, direct and indirect. A Global Humanitarian Forum report, chaired by Kofi Annan, estimated that 300,000 people die a year as a result of human induced (anthropogenic) climate change, a figure that will rise, at a very conservative estimate, to at least 500,000 people by 2030. Present health issues arising as a product of inequality and inequity stand to be exacerbating, with most devastating effects for those communities with pre-existent vulnerabilities. Primary health threats include an increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, bushfires, storms and floods. Secondary health threats are associated with the health impacts resulting from changing ecosystems, including changes in the distribution of many vector- and arthropod-borne illnesses, reduced air quality leading to respiratory illness, decreased agricultural production capacity which can result in malnutrition and famine. The tertiary health impacts are the flow-on effects of these impacts on society, including water and sanitation issues, mass displacement and migration, conflict and exacerbations in mental health burden.
How can action on climate change improve health?
Many of the systemic contributors to climate change can be explicitly illustrated as direct influences on existent health issues. The benefits of interrupting drivers of climate change include reductions in non-communicable diseases such as obesity, diabetes, ischaemic heart disease, hypertension, stroke, lung disease, dementia and depression. Profound benefits to communities can be derived through developments in areas of transport (especially public transport, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure) , sustainable and equitable agriculture, the consumption of less animal products (within recommended proportions), renewable electricity generation, intelligent urban design and increased efficiency in energy use.
What can we do?
The international community has a vast array of tools at hand to effectively tackle climate change. What is needed now is redefinition of the status quo in such a way that recognises the importance of the climate to human health and wellbeing, and unequivocal political support for restructuring systems to care primarily for people, rather than profit.
Taking action now will improve global public health by reducing the risk of negative health impacts of climate change. We can prevent much of the worst health effects of climate change by taking action to avoid what we cannot manage (mitigation – reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and manage what we cannot avoid (adaptation – preparing for changes that are already set in motion).
It is in line with the Hippocratic oath “first do no harm”, that the medical professional plays an active role in preventing damage to communities by being effective advocates for action on climate change. Current medical students will be doctors practising in the middle of the 21st century, when we will be experiencing the full extent of the health impacts of the changing global climate. In addition, policy decisions made presently will determine the types of cases current medical students will see throughout their medical careers. Thus, the health sector must be active advocates in the area of climate change and its impacts on health, considering the health co-benefits of adaptation strategies. Indeed, climate change mitigation strategies should be seen as opportunities to enable communities to achieve greater quality of life.
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