Continuing a Croakey series on the health sector’s response to yesterday’s carbon pricing announcement (the link is to a transcript of the PM’s announcement).

It’s time for the health professions to rally around the patient

Dr David Shearman, Honorary Secretary of the Doctors for the Environment Australia, writes:

Until now, there has been deep regret that, in an increasingly complex world where informed leadership is paramount, our political institution has sunk so low. Regret that in a wealthy and most fortunate country, the government appeared to sell an intergeneration measure with sweeteners to large sections of the population who man the barricades shouting “but what about me”. Dismay that a liberal, reforming Party has allowed its endeavours to be hijacked into a naked grab for power whatever the consequences as it travels down the destructive path of the US Republican party.

Doctors for the Environment Australia regards a price on carbon as a public health measure, for climate change is one of the greatest health threats of our time.  It is a measure primarily to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Even in wealthy Australia there is significant morbidity and mortality from the cardio-respiratory pollutions of coal mining and combustion. A price on carbon is a health measure like a tobacco tax. Perhaps the latter would be attacked if 60% of the population smoked?

All these regrets now give way to relief that after 20 or more years of prevarication, we have a first small but significant step to effectively reduce carbon emissions and to change our consumptive economy and lifestyle into a sustainable one. The Prime Minister is on the front foot, the proposals are comprehensive and should be supported and built on. This is not the death knell of Australian civilisation and industry that some have claimed but a way forward to their resurgence.

Doctors for the Environment Australia has campaigned long and hard on no new coal fired power stations and phasing out of dirty power stations; both measures are adopted in some measure. We have campaigned for the positive health aspects of wind and solar energy; there is committed funding. We are delighted and congratulate the Multiparty Climate Committee who have demonstrated the importance of cooperation which we hope will now extend to the entire parliament.

There are some concerns which will require attention.  The $23 price on carbon by itself is insufficient to bring in the necessary reduction in carbon intensive energy generation . If available funding moves to the other supposedly cleaner fossil fuel, gas, then the dawn is false. This scenario has been the subject of concern by the International Energy Agency Executive Director, Nobuo Tanaka:

“While natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, it is still a fossil fuel. Its increased use could muscle out low-carbon fuels such as renewables and nuclear, particularly in the wake of Fukushima. An expansion of gas use alone is no panacea for climate change.”

Further the use of coal seam gas would have unacceptable costs in the sustainability of land and ground water as well as significant risks to human health. The government may need to move to curb the gas industry on these grounds.

However, the establishment of an independent body to oversee renewable energy development with funding and a focus on energy efficiency is a very positive step that in conjunction with a carbon price may be enough to drive a shift to low carbon energy and produce by itself early and widespread improvements in human health from the resulting reduction in air pollution.

The reliance on permits to pollute raised overseas is also a concern for there is no evidence that the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) schemes can be effective. These monies would be better used to preserve the carbon stores in our own forests.

It might well be asked if a price on carbon is such an important issue for doctors, why they are not marching up and down Macquarie Street.

My view of my colleagues is that  I know of no section of the community so committed to the public good, yet their collective view on climate change and carbon pricing is probably little different to that of the general population. Perhaps this is due to their daily engrossment in the vicissitudes of health care; climate change is one battle too many.

The medical profession thinks that if its leadership isn’t singing out there isn’t a problem, and as we have seen from the writings in Croakey, the leadership has been tremulous or absent. One suspects that some of our conservative institutions would have said more if climate change had not become a partisan political issue. There is now a policy package that the profession can and should support for its positive health impacts.

In medical terms the patient is still in intensive care, the relatives and doctors have been milling around the bed debating the treatment, wasting time while the patient deteriorates: the cost of treatment is great, we may have to sell the house, let others contribute, let’s go and plant trees—as a memorial.

But at last we have a decision! We have put in a drip, given some intravenous fluid and prolonged life whilst we get our act together and concentrate on the patient rather than ourselves.

To those poor souls who have not worked out who the patient is, they are standing on it.


Other articles in this series:

• Carbon pricing: an important public health advance

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