Health professionals must help tackle climate change

Healthy response to climate change; BMJ Volume 332, pp 1385-7

Climate change is a major public health threat which health professionals must help to tackle, argues an expert in this week's BMJ.

The most feasible policy for tackling global warming is contraction and convergence a carbon cap and trade policy designed to stabilise and then reduce global carbon dioxide emissions, writes Dr Robin Stott.

The first step in implementing this policy is to set a global carbon budget. This initial budget is then reduced (contracted) at an agreed pace and time until the amount of allocated carbon equals the globe's carrying capacity. Convergence is the move towards an equal carbon allowance for every person. People with low energy use can then trade their surplus to those with high energy use.

This policy offers a way forward which is globally just and produces many health benefits, such as encouraging more physical activity among people in industrialised societies. Trading in carbon will also transfer money from rich to poor countries, and help deliver the millennium health goals.

"The financial implications of trading in carbon entitlements mean it will be in everyone's interest to minimise the amount of carbon we emit," writes the author. But can this policy be made to work?

The political courage and will to implement contraction and convergence is gaining ground, he says. This high level support must now be deepened and formalised so that politicians worldwide commit themselves to the policy.

Health professionals must also set an example and advocate for contraction and convergence both locally and nationally, he concludes.

This process will be a far more effective driver towards minimising the impact of climate change than attempting to encourage individuals to adopt green practices, adds Dr Mayer Hillman in an accompanying commentary. Carbon allowances will act as a parallel currency to real money as well as creating an ecologically virtuous circle.

Finally, an editorial suggests that, if medicine is about saving lives, then working to alter patterns of behaviour that contribute to climate change could arguably become a priority for clinicians - as an urgent preventative measure. Likewise, institutions of health care in particular the NHS have enormous power to do good or harm to the natural environment and to increase or diminish carbon emissions.

The author, Anna Coote, describes some examples of good practice, but points out that these depend on highly committed individuals innovating against the odds. Incentives in the NHS run in the opposite direction and no-one gets fired for failing to reduce the carbon footprint of a hospital or clinic.

By 2010, 11 billion will be spent on new hospitals that are largely unsustainable. And so, in the name of 'healthcare,' gargantuan sums of public money continue to be spent in ways that are careless of the physical and mental wellbeing of future generations, she writes.

However, without action, "we will be knowingly handing over a dying planet to the next generation," concludes Dr Hillman.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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