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Slow Climate Change, Improve Health, Says New Group

  • Joe DeCapua

International Climate and Health Council

International Climate and Health Council

International doctors and health professionals say it’s their duty to speak out

Senior doctors and health professionals from around the world say major health improvements would result if world leaders tackle climate change. They’ve formed the International Climate and Health Council to present their case for going green.

Members say while politicians may fear to push for radical changes in greenhouse gas emissions, doctors are under no such constraints. The council includes colleagues from Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe and the Americas and was formed in advance of next month’s major climate change conference in Copenhagen, called COP 15.

Healthy earth, healthy inhabitants

Professor Mike Gill, co-chair of the British Climate and Health Council and spokesman for the new group, outlines why it was formed.

“The first reason is that the health dimension in the climate change negotiations is conspicuous by its absence. And yet, it is one of the very few good news stories…. It’s good news because everything we should be doing to mitigate climate change is good for health,” he says.

He says many people, including health professionals and politicians, don’t realize that connection between climate change and health.

“The second reason is much of the climate change debate was initially 20 years ago framed very much in environmental terms. And then it’s moved increasingly to economic terms, but actually economics is not the bottom line here. It’s health,” he says.

Gill likens the new group to the alliance formed by doctors during the 1980s to campaign against nuclear weapons. In 1985, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

“Faced with the reality of climate change, we feel that we really would be failing in our professional duty if we didn’t step forward and show some leadership,” he says.

Effects on health

“Most of the problems caused by climate change are through the indirect effect of huge effects on food security, water security and population movement,” he says.

“It’s these indirect effects making those already very vulnerable even more vulnerable, which are the most sinister.”

There are also direct effects from climate change, he says, such as redistribution of disease patterns, including malaria and tick-borne diseases and “of course all the major events, such a heat waves and cyclones.”

Gill believes the International Climate and Health Council can get past the economics of the climate change debate by looking at the four “domains” that are affected.

“Electricity generation, transport, agriculture and domestic energy. In all of those, the very things that we know we need to do to mitigate climate change are going to produce huge health benefits not just in high income countries, but in low income countries, as well,” he says.

For example, the group recommends a reversal in the rising trend of meat consumption. Large amounts of methane gas are produced by livestock. He says meat consumption worldwide has “gone up five times in the last 50 years,” a growth rate far surpassing the world’s population increase.

“We know full well that reducing meat consumption actually is going to be extremely good for health because cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death,’ he says.

However, it’s not just the food, but how it’s cooked.

“The provision, say, of 150 million clean cooking stoves in India will produce dramatic effects over the next 10 years on the amount of CO2 emission, as well as saving very many, many lives from respiratory disease and many other childhood illnesses that are a direct result of people not living in a very polluted environment inside their own homes,” he says.

As for transport, he says, the very act of more people walking or riding bicycles in many cities reduces pollution and improves health, such as reducing the obesity epidemic.

“The point about them all is that actually these effects will be immediate and local. They won’t be distant,” he says.

Gill says the council has very prominent and senior professional members from all over the world.

In addition, he says it recently started a pledge campaign “inviting health professionals to say we as individuals will do what we can to try and persuade our governments to sign a meaningful deal in Copenhagen. And we’ve got sign-ups from health professionals in 120 countries.”