Treating climate change: an urgent case for doctors

Ingo Weber
Dr Ingo Weber

It usually falls to scientists to talk about the urgency of the need to combat climate change, but Dr Ingo Weber is among a growing number of medicos who believe that doctors should also take a leading role.

A Flinders medical graduate and practising anaesthetist, Dr Weber teaches medical students from Flinders and Adelaide universities about health and climate change as part of the topic Health Professionals and Society.

Dr Weber, who in addition to practising full-time in Australia and Europe has had a long involvement in doctor and medical student education, says that in view of the disastrous implications of global warming for human health, educating medical students about climate change is crucial.

“They will be the future doctors who have to deal with its massive health impacts,” Dr Weber said.

“Our health services and infrastructure are not prepared for the health impacts we are going to be facing in Australia.”

As well as discussing the issue globally, the topic, which he teaches with his colleague Associate Professor Hubertus Jersmann,, covers the health effects linked to climbing temperatures and rising sea levels on Australia, and on Adelaide specifically. With the CSIRO predicting just over a five-degree rise in temperatures by the end of the century, Adelaide is set to become “quite a hot place”, Dr Weber said.

“That means a lot of people will be suffering from heat effects in many different ways, and doctors and other health professionals need to be prepared for that,” he said.

“It’s the young and the elderly who will be most affected. With our ageing population demanding more health services anyway, on top of that we are going to have these extremes of weather to contend with, placing a major strain on our health and hospital systems.”

He said Indigenous populations in rural areas will be particularly vulnerable.

“People who already have a lot of co-morbidities or other illnesses to contend with, be it renal failure, heart disease or diabetes, along with the elderly and the very young, will be the most affected,” Dr Weber said.

“Climate change is biting already – in the last 15 years we’ve had 10 of the hottest years ever recorded.”

Dr Weber said that while climate change knows no borders, in proportional terms Australia is likely to feel the changes severely. He said the recent drought and its effect on the Murray Darling Basin has offered a taste of what it to come, particularly in its implications for mental health.

“The people who are going to be physically and psychological affected by more severe weather and droughts are our farmers, the people who supply our bread and butter and are already doing it tough,

Dr Weber said the increase of mental health problems including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide in times of drought is already recognised. Increasingly frequent and more severe and extreme weather conditions, brought about by global warming will act as a threat multiplier, he said.

“This is going to take a heavy toll on farmers in particular, who are already having a tough time.”

On a global scale it is the poorest populations of developing countries, which already struggle to achieve basic levels of health and have least contributed to climate change who are going to be especially vulnerable to climate change and suffer most from the health impacts.

“We are at risk of reversing the all the good work we have done in reducing paediatric and maternal mortality and morbidity rates,” Dr Weber said,

Dr Weber said doctors and health professionals have a duty to communicate the urgency of the threats to health and to life.

“It’s not just a case of telling the students that they will have a few more patients with heat stress: I am pointing the finger directly at them to say that as doctors and medical students we have a duty to act as health advocates. Our society expects us to have a role in protecting their health, not just in treating our patients in our clinical practice.”

“Our responsibility changes in the face of an urgent threat, when we become responsible not for just one life, but for millions of lives.”

Dr Weber said that at the time he graduated from Flinders in 1992, atmospheric CO2 levels had already reached 350 parts per million, which is considered to be the limit to a safe climate. It was also the year the UN declared man-made climate change a threat to humanity.

“We are now heading towards 450 parts per million. Beyond this will be catastrophic, irreversible climate change and the threatened collapse of most human civilisation as we know it,” he said.

“By the time today’s medical students become specialist doctors there will be little they can do, since within 10 years a far hotter climate will be locked in. This why we want to highlight the urgency and importance of the issue to our medical students today.

“I think there is no better place to start than at my own university, which taught me everything I needed to know to become a doctor. “

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3 thoughts on “Treating climate change: an urgent case for doctors

  1. Have you seen the simple proof that CO2 change has no significant effect on climate?

    CO2 has been considered to be a forcing with units Joules/sec. Energy change, which is revealed by temperature change, has units Joules. Average forcing times duration produces energy change. Equivalently, a scale factor times the time-integral of the CO2 level produces the temperature change.

    During previous glaciations and interglacials (as so dramatically displayed in An Inconvenient Truth) CO2 and temperature went up and down nearly together. This is impossible if CO2 is a significant forcing (scale factor not zero) so this actually proves CO2 CHANGE DOES NOT CAUSE SIGNIFICANT AVERAGE GLOBAL TEMPERATURE CHANGE.

    Application of this analysis methodology to CO2 levels for the entire Phanerozoic eon (Berner, 2001) proves that CO2 levels up to at least 6 times the present will have no significant effect on average global temperature.

    See more on this and discover the two factors that do cause climate change (95% correlation since before 1900) at http://agwunveiled.blogspot.com . The two factors which explain the last 300+ years of climate change are also identified in a peer reviewed paper published in Energy and Environment, vol. 25, No. 8, 1455-1471.

  2. I come from a cattle and sheep farming family. It’s ironic that farmers will suffer; they are the ones who are partly responsible for Climate Change. The others who are responsible are consumers of meat. Animal consumption is the leading cause of Climate Change; the impact of clearing land to graze livestock and the feeding and raising of livestock for slaughter have far greater impact than fossil fuel usage (United Nations). Transitioning to a vegan planet would virtually STOP Climate Change as well as Poverty (food that’s fed to animals can be diverted to countries in poverty). I wish that people would change the conversation to the Elephant in the Room that seemingly nobody wants to discuss whilst they are happy to go headfirst into all the ways to deal with the effects of Climate Change. It’s like people are trying to empty their houses of flooding water when they are the ones with all the taps turned fully on!!!

  3. Dr Weber says it all… as a medical student it is imperative that we are given the whole picture when it comes to health threats. We need to know what is causing ill-health in order to learn how to prevent it. Medicine can’t just be about damage-control as has previously been the status quo – our resources simply can’t accommodate that in the face of climate change and all the consequences that go with it. Society looks to doctors as people who have the knowledge and the compassion to help humanity rise above ill-health. As we are heading now, doctors and medical students must address the greatest public health threat of our time like never before. Dr Weber’s words are an inspiration to us all in the school of Medicine at Flinders University.

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