Climate change and the risk to civilisation: the doctors’ prescription #auspol #qldpol #StopAdani #COP24 #ClimateStrike #ExtinctionRebellion #SchoolStrike4Climate #TheDrum

By Colin Butler

The 2018 State of the Climate report, released yesterday, again highlights the risk to human wellbeing from our love affair with fossil fuels. Coal, oil and gas have underpinned the incredible advances in affluence, population size, and health since development of the steam engine. But fossil fuel use has an optimum dose, which is now well past.

We are metaphorically drowning in carbon dioxide, the invisible, odourless waste product of burning fossil fuel. As the report notes, this is increasing heatwaves, acidifying the oceans and raising the sea level. It is also lowering the micronutrient concentrations of food.

An evacuation during the November bushfires, near Mount Larcom, Queensland.

Photo: AAP

The report cites growing effects on human and animal health, including from increased fires and flooding, and says extreme heat days are rising alarmingly. This month, dozens of Australians were rescued from the Hume Highway, stranded by intense rainfall. Record heat and fire ravaged north Queensland. A third of the spectacled flying fox population died from heat, possibly exposing animal rescuers to viral diseases.

In November, San Francisco air was worse than Delhi, due to fires that ruined the Californian city of Paradise, recently home for 30,000 people.

Earlier this month, at the Katowice conference, held in the heartland of Polish coal seams, David Attenborough called climate change the greatest threat to humanity in thousands of years. He warned that, without action, “the collapse of our civilisations, and the extinction of much of the natural world, is on the horizon”.

Attenborough’s warnings have a distinguished pedigree. In 2010, Frank Fenner, the great Australian scientist who helped eradicate smallpox, warned that humans risked total extinction due to overpopulation, resource over-consumption, environmental destruction and climate change. Martin Rees, a past president of the world’s oldest scientific organisation, the Royal Society, has warned this century might be our last.

It might be comforting to dismiss these warnings as the fantasies of old men, and some wise old women, such as Jane Goodall. Optimists might argue that a rise of even 2 degrees in average global temperature is trivial, or point out that you could walk to Tasmania during the Ice Age. The sea-level rise of 10 thousand years ago was easily adapted to, and today our technological and social capacity is immeasurably greater. A fever of 2 extra degrees is uncomfortable, but we have paracetamol.

Such responses are deceptive and dangerous. The unprecedented complexity, connectivity and power of modern civilisation is also its weakness. Sea-level rise on the US east coast is already depressing the market value of homes and could help trigger a future financial crash. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation is increasingly concerned about climate change, conflict and future food security. The 2010 heatwave and drought in Russia, which led to the temporary banning of Russian wheat exports, helped spark the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. The Australian winter harvest of 2018 was poor, especially from the eastern states, due not only to drought, but heat, reduced soil moisture and a lengthening frost season.

But the collapse of civilisation is not inevitable. Collapse might be avoided by a strong dose of preventive medicine, such as replacing coal with wind and solar, an electric bus revolution and reduced meat consumption (also good for health).

The threat of sea-level rise … erosion at Old Bar, NSW. 

Photo: Shane Chalker

As with a real vaccine, which requires a tiny dose of something potentially harmful (technically known as an antigen) we seem to need a dose of poison (in this case fear) before we act; but too much fear is paralysing. We also need hope, such as provided by the NSW government’s recognition of our overdoseon fossil fuels.

The physical climate is changing, so fast that more and more people, including many children, can now recognise it. If we can harness the internet, new technology, and the common sense of ordinary people then we will we at least have a reasonable chance. Recognising the validity of these warnings is a vital step if we are to survive.

Colin Butler is an epidemiologist and member of the scientific advisory committee of Doctors for the Environment, Australia.

He is an honorary professor in public health at the Australian National University.

Press link for more: SMH

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