“We must be prepared to take more risks” — this is what Clive Hamilton, an Australian professor of public ethics, said to me when I asked him how should we respond to the threats of human-induced climate change.
Climate change represents the biggest evolving threat to human health.
Our backs are against the wall. If we want to survive in a stable and healthy world, we need to embark on a new social experiment — an experiment because much of what we face and what we need to face, is new territory for us.
Indeed, it may entail new territory for biological psychology. What are our species’ capacities to modify our current behaviour in the light of a threat that is diffuse and extends beyond our own lives?
What are the social and regulatory changes that are needed to address this? These changes would not be minor. They would not be business as usual with a bit of green energy stuck on the side. Living sustainably is a full paradigm shift.
There’s the rub.
The Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) comprises doctors and medical students committed to addressing ill health resulting from damage to the natural environment.
The main focus of the DEA’s national conference — to be held in Sydney this year on 14‒15 March — will be, appropriately, climate change.
I will be speaking at the conference about my experiences working literally at the coalface in Lithgow, a town in the NSW western coalfield district. Here the realities and complexities of any shift away from coal are direct and perceived as threatening.
In terms of the ABC of emergency resuscitation, responding to climate change is the airway. If we can’t kick our carbon-burning habit, then most of the other agendas will be trashed — be they public health, social transformation, stable and flourishing cultures, a rich natural environment, technological utopias … the dreams we dream.
But burning carbon is no easy habit to kick. It has offered us cheap industrial power and with that has come political power. We have many and vexed tensions to grapple with — social, political, globalist, economic … the list goes on — if we are to shift away from our carbon dependency.
The climate scientists and environmentalists have pressed hard to get their concerns out into the public arena. Even a few politicians have stuck their noses into this dangerous wind.
But what about the medical profession? What are we doing?
By and large, I’d say not much. We are commonly more focused on individual care, on treating people’s immediate health issues.
Yet the health and social impacts of climate change will be massive. If we are seriously interested in the full picture of health, including intergenerational health, then this is an area that needs our serious attention.
Medicine does have a long tradition of trying to improve society more broadly using the prism of health. As a result of our dedicated care, we earn our place as a leading social stratum of professional respect and authority.
We need to use all our leadership capacities, all our creative energy, all our deep and broad social connectedness to make our contribution to the massive social shift that is required to address climate change. Multidisciplinary medical advocacy on this issue will have an impact, possibly a big one.
We need to act and influence now. The science — our Holy Grail — is suggesting we are fast running out of time.
For us, individually and collectively, to seriously engage with this threat will possibly bring us into new, challenging territory. I have been threatened at public meetings in Lithgow for daring to discuss alternatives to coal mining.
New territory can be threatening, but we must be prepared to take those risks.
If we don’t, it’s just going to get even riskier.
Dr Richard Stiles is a rural GP/surgeon in Lithgow, NSW. He is a public advocate on the health and environmental effects of the coal industry and a member of Doctors for the Environment.