Opinion Former Article

Doctors can no longer ignore climate change, says RCP president

Professor Ian Gilmore, President of the Royal College of Physicians, will send out a stark warning to the medical profession about the dangers of climate change at a one-day conference to be held next Tuesday 29 January at the College.

Professor Gilmore, who is opening the conference at 9.20, will say the consequences of apathy are unthinkable, and doctors should play as big a role in championing green issues and sustainable development as they would in the clinical care of their own patients.

"As doctors, we are often looking at the single patient in front of us, but as ambassadors for improving healthcare we have roles in the NHS, in healthcare and in wider society to become champions of change to protect the planet from climate change. As private individuals, we may well act ecologically, but may not always have carried our private views into the public arena. It is time we stepped up to the plate."

The conference, chaired by David Shukman, the BBC's Environment and Science Correspondent, features international experts in climate change, looking at the issue from many different angles. Professor Gilmore will lead a press conference at 10.45 at the Royal College of Physicians, 11 St Andrews Place, Regent's Park, London NW1 4LE.
Weblink to conference programme:
http://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/event/doc/evt947.doc

Dr Alan Maryon-Davis, President of the Faculty of Public Health will also join the conference for a panel discussion to urge action on these issues:

'We are facing a global public health catastrophe, and as a health and healthcare community we must use our knowledge, skills, influence and networks as urgently and effectively as possible to reduce its impact. This means doing whatever we can to help slow the inexorable climate change - but also to work with those countries and communities most likely to be affected to help build up their public health and healthcare capacity to adapt and cope with the likely consequences while there is still time."

Conference organiser Dr Hugh Montgomery, Director of the Institute for Human Health and Performance, UCL, will say that there is no greater threat to human health and survival than climate change:

"There is no doubt that Climate Change is happening. And there is no doubt that humans are causing it: every major national scientific body round the world - including Germany, India, China, the UK, and the USA - agrees. Nor is there any doubt about the consequences. They will be very grave indeed. There is no greater threat to human health and survival than climate change. For those of us working as doctors, its imminent and severe threat dwarfs any survival gains due to our daily healthcare activity. Such threats are not just of altered disease patterns for those in distant lands, but are to us and our children: economic collapse, migration and war know no boundaries.
Neither does the impact of ecosystem collapse: we are already losing 3 known species an hour, and face the fact that over 50% of the world's species committed to extinction within a few decades.
The time for talk is over. The time now is for action - from politicians, but also from individuals. And healthcare workers should be in the vanguard."

More contributions from RCP climate change conference speakers:

Mr Tom Burke CBE, Chief Adviser, Environment Policy, Rio Tinto, will give the opening speech. He will say that climate change is different from any other problem that humanity has ever faced for three reasons:

First, its scale: it will effect the prosperity, security and well being of literally every single person on the planet.

Second, its urgency: to stay below the 20C rise in global average temperatures that Europe's leaders have defined as the threshold of dangerous climate change global greenhouse gas, emissions must peak within the next decade.

Third, its dynamics; we cannot afford policy failure on climate change because of the long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere and the nature of the way in which the earth's biogeophysical systems respond to climate change.

Some level of climate change is now unavoidable but the most serious risks can still be prevented by urgent action. Among those risks, the risks to human health are amongst the most immediate and pervasive. The impacts on health will not only by direct through the increase in natural disasters, the changing pattern of disease vectors and increased heat stress but indirect through impacts on the availability of water and food. There will also be indirect effects on our ability to maintain adequate provision of health services both as a consequence of the impacts of natural disasters and budgetary competition with the need for very high levels public investment in mitigation and adaptation measures. The scale and pervasiveness of the dislocations caused by climate change will also have significant, but so far largely unexplored, effects on mental health. Climate change stresses all the other stressors in society.

Professor Sir David King, Director Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment, speaking at 10.15
Fossil Fuels and Climate Change

Sir David will outline how we are facing a number of challenges that we have never faced before: the sustainable use of natural resources, reversing environmental degradation, defeating infectious diseases, energy resource and tackling climate change.

Population growth is probably the biggest driver behind these challenges. Today there are around six billion people on the planet and by 2050 the population is expected to reach a peak of 9 billion. With this pressure on our diminishing natural resources comes, perhaps, the biggest challenge we face globally: climate change.

The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demonstrated that the direct link between human activities and global warming is more clearly established than ever. Rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are resulting in rising temperatures. Unless we take urgent action to substantially reduce our carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions the predicted temperature rise will have devastating impacts around the world. Rising temperatures are likely to impact on almost every sector of society. More powerful storms and sea level rise will affect our infrastructure, changing temperatures will affect the pattern of infectious diseases and increase the number of heat waves, droughts will affect both food production and fresh water supply as will the shrinking glaciers on which one in six people depend for their drinking water.

Professor Adrian Lister, Research Leader, Department of Palaeontology, The Natural History Museum, speaking at 11.05
The biotic effects of climate change - past, present and future

The living world is the life-support system of the human species. Living organisms provide the food we eat and the oxygen we breathe. They also include pathogens and their vectors, and the microbes that can poison our water. The projected impact of climate change on the world's ecosystems is therefore of extreme concern in the areas of human health and well-being.

Studies of a wide range of living organisms have demonstrated significant shifts in the distributions of many species in recent decades. Others are facing extinction - such as tropical amphibians decimated by pathogenic fungal growth, in turn promoted by climate change.

These effects are strongly exacerbated by other human impacts on the environment. The destruction of natural habitats creates barriers to animal and plant dispersal, while pollution and hunting further weaken the resistance of ecosystems to climate change.

Climate change is predicted in the 21st Century to take global temperatures above anything seen in at least the past million years. That period is the one in which the human species evolved: we are in danger of destroying the context in which we arose and to which we are adapted.

Dr Richard Horton, Editor-in-chief of The Lancet, speaking at 11.35
Impacts of climate change: health, energy, and policy

Climate change is already killing people prematurely. If we fail to act now, millions of people will die from malnutrition, heatwaves, floods, storms, fires, drought, and disease. Tragically, the greatest threats face already struggling and vulnerable continents such as Africa. As health professionals, we have an urgent responsibility to help our fellow human beings. Climate change is part of a larger danger: a massively disordered global energy metabolism. For example, 1.6 billion people suffer adverse health because of lack of access to electricity. 2 billion people endure harm from burning biomass fuels. And 1.6 million people die each year from indoor air pollution. Climate change is the greatest market failure in human history. Yet the UK's response remains weak and inadequate. Worse still, there is no global coordination to defeat the health dangers of climate change. We need a dramatic scaling up of action immediately. That action will demand unprecedented and untested levels of human cooperation: a challenge to the very existence of our species.

Professor Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies, Bradford University, speaking at 14.10
Migration and war

All the indications are that climate change is accelerating the most recent indicator being the unexpected ice loss in the massive western Antarctica ice sheets. It is also clear that the tropical land masses, which support the majority of the world's population, will be far more affected than previously thought. The consequences for human health and well-being world-wide within 2-3 decades are potentially calamitous, making the prevention of climate change possibly the most important task of our time. Moreover, the responses have to be implemented in the next 5-10 years, no later.

Professor Ian Roberts, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, speaking at 15.50

Policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could lead to substantial reductions in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, road deaths and air pollution. This is the conclusion of a major conference on climate change and health at the RCP this week. Moving city commuters to walking, cycling and public transport would reduce fossil fuel energy use, traffic injuries, air pollution and by increasing physical activity would tackle the growing obesity epidemic. Policies to reduce greenhouse emissions during food production, particularly the methane from livestock production, would involve reducing meat intake and this would lead to reductions in bowel cancer and heart disease.

"It would not be the first time that environmental policy had striking health benefits. Two hundred years ago the streets of London were awash with sewage and the city stank. Infectious disease was a deadly scourge but sorting out the stink was the priority. Nevertheless, policy on sewage did more to improve health than any health policy that century. Sanitation policy was voted by doctors to be the greatest medical advance in the last 150 years - climate change policy could be the next great medical advance."

Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor-in-Chief of the BMJ, speaking at 16.20
Turning concern into action: How do we mobilise the health professions?

Doctors have a professional duty to protect the health of their patients and of the public. But for most doctors, the need to act against climate change still sits in the realm of either individual conscience or national policy. They don't see it as part of their professional duty. We need to change that perception if we are to enlist doctors, with their huge potential to influence individuals and governments, in the fight against climate change. The evidence is building that climate change is perhaps the greatest current threat to public health globally. Margaret Chan, director general of WHO recently called it the defining challenge for public health of the 21st century. But in order to give doctors permission to act for the good of their patients, we also need to bring this down to the level of individual patients and local healthcare systems. The benefits to health of low carbon living - reductions in obesity, cancer, and heart disease - and the cost savings to hard pressed health services of sustainable development are two key incentives that will help doctors to act against climate change in their professional capacity rather than as individuals. We also need to continue to gather good evidence of the risks of inaction and the benefits of action and to build this into curricula for undergraduate and post graduate education and continuing professional development. As with the fight against tobacco smoking, once they are assured of their professional duty to help tackle climate change, doctors can use their influence through personal example and through concerted pressure on national and international bodies.

For further information and to arrange interviews please contact RCP PR Manager Linda Cuthbertson on 020 7935 1174 ext.254, 0794 105 7494, Linda.cuthbertson@rcplondon.ac.uk

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