Recent fires in Australia and California have provoked discussion about the effects of climate change. These extreme events, not unknown in times past, seem to be more frequent now and suggest that the recorded changes in global temperature may be responsible. Blame – a common feature that follows disasters – is variously ascribed to political inertia over fossil fuels or local failure to take evasive preparative action as through preventive hazard reduction. Political polarisation has followed. We need a good dose of cooling off before developing effective stronger coping strategies. .
Richard Smith, former editor extraordinaire of The BMJ, has been appointed chair of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC) of which The BMJ and Lancet, its rival sibling, are members. Writing in The BMJOpinion blog, Smith says:
Nobody knows exactly what harm will come from climate change, but the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change, which is appropriately cautious, said that we are heading for an increase in global temperature of 3 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels, with potentially catastrophic consequences. To go beyond an increase of 1.5 degrees Centigrade is “dicing with the planet’s liveability,” and to stay below 1.5 degrees Centigrade requires “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
He then quotes David Wallace-Wells, author of ‘the deeply researched, beautifully written, and terrifying book The Uninhabitable Earth: “The world has, at most, about three decades to completely decarbonize before truly devastating climate horrors begin. You can’t halfway your way to a solution to a crisis this large.”’ Smith continues:
I also think of the climate emergency in relation to Bangladesh, a country I have been visiting for more than a decade. The Bay of Bengal is already moving north, forcing people to migrate to Dhaka, a city that feels on the edge of collapse and where 30% of the 25 million people live in slums. Yet Bangladeshis have one of the lowest per capita carbon consumptions in the world. The climate emergency is an issue of social justice.
The Lancet has recently published the 2019 version of the ‘Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change’, a report produced ‘with strategic and [generous] financial support from the Wellcome Trust. The Lancet Countdown is hosted by University College London, and works with 35 partners around the world to track and understand the link between climate change and health’ with the ‘collaboration of over 120 leading experts from academic institutions and UN agencies across the globe, bringing together climate scientists, engineers, energy specialists, economists, political scientists, public health professionals and doctors.’ The Medical Journal of Australia has recently published a parallel assessment report for 2019 that tracks Australia’s movement against 31 indicators.
Australia is well positioned to take an active interest in climate change. The late Tony McMichael, professor of epidemiology at ANU, devoted much of his professional life to explicating the interplay between the environment and health and established our understanding of these relationships with rigour and intellectual elegance.
His last book, published posthumously in February 2017 and edited by epidemiologist and former colleague Alistair Woodward, and environmental historian Cameron Muir, was entitled Climate Change and The Health of Nations: Famines Fevers and the Fate of Populations. It provides a thoughtful, but nevertheless confronting, account of the challenges produced by human dominance of what has come to be called the Anthropocene, ‘an era defined by human influence rather than natural process.’
The science of climate change is ultra-complex. Those who maintain a negative view about the reality of global heating can legitimately claim that all that we would like to know is not yet known and that the sheer complexity of the science makes it inaccessible to critical appraisal. This matters. Leading Harvard environmental economist Martin Weitzman, 77, who died in August this year by suicide, considered that there were major limitations imposed on economic models of the effects of climate change because, as The Economist tells it, ‘the sensitivity of global surface temperature of atmospheric carbon dioxide remains uncertain’ so that even if we might cope with steady rises in temperature, ‘a cataclysmic event, such as global warming over six degrees Centigrade remains worryingly possible.’
Those who maintain that fluctuating global temperature is natural and not man-made have an uphill battle to establish their case when the observational data about temperature trends are examined alongside the upward movement of principal indicators such as atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, and ambient temperature.
Among the welter of statistics and the racket of polarised political discussion, the sound and fury and the despair, we would do well to read McMichael’s writing to clear our minds. We might also recall the words of St Francis of Assisi, quoted by Pope Francis at the start of his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ in which he urged deep environmental sensitivity and bold action. ‘Our common home,’ St Francis said, ‘is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.’
Our principal responsibility is to ensure that whatever changes occur we are well prepared. Extreme events can stir us up and may or may not be part of a larger problem. But the steady changes in global temperature – whatever we do to ameliorate them – are what we need to focus on, always remembering the broad environmental context of which climate is a part, but only a part.
Stephen Leeder is an emeritus academic in public health at Sydney University.