A Climate of Change
There is something really special about this generation of young people. I have noticed in the medical students, and university students generally, that there is a can-do approach to things- one minute you are talking about a social justice cause, the next minute they have set up a website, a social network, a fundraiser a petition and a massive rally or conference is planned! There is a wonderful self-confidence in the air in this generation of doers – so I’m very optimistic for the future.
A case in point was that earlier this year I attended the Global Health Conference run by the Australian Medical Students Association in Sydney. Over 700 medical students attended and what an extraordinary buzz there was in the room and passionate enthusiasm for global health. And the speakers that the students had managed to garner for the event were top contemporary thinkers– Jose Ramos Horta, Julian Assange and Pat McGorry just to name a few to get the debates going.
Young people have got on board with climate change activism with gusto! Just a few weeks ago in Melbourne, over 30,000 people turned up for a climate change rally, and it was mostly organised by extraordinary young people who are concerned about climate change and what it means for the future. Last years’ Powershift conference run by the Australian Youth Climate Change Coalition was another amazing youth led event.
So what is all this fuss about climate change? As a university academic, and a mentor in the Al Gore Climate Reality project sometimes I feel like I am living in a parallel universe with our current federal government. The majority of the community and the rest of the world seem to have fully appreciated the science of climate change and are busily discussing solutions which will hopefully result in some sort of international lasting solution at the critical United Nations meeting to be held in Paris at the end of 2015. The recent Climate Change Summit in New York attended by many of the world’s leaders (minus our Prime Minister) is working to find solutions to avoid dangerous climate change. Meanwhile, our current federal government in Australia seems to be dismantling effective actions on climate change as quickly as it possibly can, and even challenging the accepted science at every possible opportunity.
Everyone’s entitled to his or her own opinion but not to his or her own facts. And the facts stand that climate change is well underway. The 5th Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is unambiguous that the world is indeed warming and that it is occurring because of the release of huge quantities of greenhouse gases from human activities. And despite some over representation in the media of climate skepticism and some breathtakingly nonsensical distortions of the science, the reality is that the science is in and the vast majority (more than 99%) of climate scientists around the world are absolutely convinced that climate change is already happening and predictions indicate substantial further warming with serious implications for the health of humanity.
One of the difficulties in communicating climate change is that one or two degrees of warming sounds sort of nice, especially if you live in Melbourne and generally it’s not as warm here as we would like! However the earths’ systems are more like an organic system and even the slight rise in temperature is more like a fever in a patient and will have all sorts of flow on effects – changes in atmospheric humidity, patterns of precipitation, and alteration to the normal rhythms of biological systems.
Thus there are numerous impacts of increases in average global temperature predicted such as more severe heatwaves, more extreme weather events, changes in the distribution of infectious diseases, rising sea levels, reductions in access to fresh water, and threats to food security. In addition there are enormous flow on effects such as loss of livelihoods, displacement of communities and setting the scene for conflicts, which are so often battles about dwindling environmental resources.
It is useful to look at climate change not just in isolation but also as the latest boundary which human activities are hitting up against. This era has been described as the Anthropocene, where human activities are for the first time literally a force of nature- we have become the most powerful force on the planet. For example, we are hitting boundaries in the oceans from overfishing, from ocean acidification, and from changes to the nitrogen cycle from our extensive agriculture.
So it is on this sobering backdrop, that we at the Nossal Institute for Global Health think about global health, about the well being of the current 7 billion people on the planet and of future generations. The global health community has been advocating for decades for the literally billions of people who suffer from poverty and preventable diseases. And it’s true to say we have had some fantastic gains in recent decades including increases in vaccination rates, reduced poverty, and improved access to fresh water and sanitation in some of the poorest parts of the world.
Some of these gains have been part of a global movement to attain what have been termed the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and which are a series of internationally agreed-upon goals for 2015 which have created a global focus and momentum on issues such as reduced maternal and child mortality, gender equality and reductions in HIV and Malaria just to name a few.
So as we come up to 2015 and these goals reach their deadline, there is much discussion about what the next set of goals ought look like, and one theme that’s come through very strongly is that maintaining these gains in human health critically depends on us also maintaining our environmental systems. These very life support systems- clean water, food security, and a safe climate are essential if we are able to keep making advances in mortality reduction and well-being for communities around the world. So many have argued that the new goals should be called the Sustainable Development Goals and incorporate intertwined health and environmental outcomes.
There is another theme emerging that represents a huge change in our thinking about global health. The so-called Non Communicable Diseases (NCD’s for short) are diseases such as obesity, diabetes, smoking related illnesses, mental health problems, and are the most rapidly increasing diseases both in the developed and developing world. Notably these diseases are now rivaling in their impact the traditional communicable diseases about which we have always been concerned such as Malaria, TB and HIV. To a large extent, the NCDs can be understood as a result of our modern western lifestyles where we now have less physical activity, and unprecedented access to high calorie high-energy foods. Our modern western lifestyle is literally killing us.
There is much debate at the moment about how we want our future societies to look, especially as of 2008, for the first time, there are more human beings living in cities than in rural locations. How do we design these cities? How do we transform societies so that we have a platform for supporting healthy happy communities for the long term? At this critical time in human history, we do in fact have the technology and knowhow to design and build more sustainable cities, which are more conducive to active transport, bike riding, walking, and growing and consuming local healthy foods- so there is a real opportunity to build sustainable societies if we have the will.
In achieving this, Australia will also need to seriously think about how we want to obtain our energy supply for the coming decades and centuries. No doubt coal is an easy option- so cheap and also profitable to ship off to our neighbors. But there is also a wonderful opportunity for Australia to be a world leader in sustainability, a renewable superpower with our largely untapped solar and wind resources that could easily power Australia’s future. Do we really want to be a fossil fuel laggard as the rest of the world moves on with exciting economic opportunities in renewable technologies? If we believe the scientists’ predictions, to avoid dangerous climate change, most of our current coal has to stay in the ground. And when you include the real costs of fossil fuels on our health and on the health of future generations, fossil fuels are not such an economic bargain after all.
So although the case I have presented may seem rather utopian or perhaps naive, if we look back through history, we do see extraordinary turning points and transformations in human history that were unimaginable. Who would’ve thought that our technological developments such as mobile phones would have had such an extraordinary and rapid uptake on communities? Who would have thought we could ban smoking from so many public places and drastically reduce smoking rates? Societies certainly are more flexible and adaptive than we realise and can make drastic changes if and when they want to- maybe our society is ready for this change.
We are for sure living through one of those critical turning point periods in human history. The scientists tell us that we really need to turn the ship around with regards to emissions of human greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 if we’re going to have even a 50% chance of reducing warming to less than 2 degrees by 2050- they have termed this decade the critical decade when we as a global society will rise to or fail to meet this challenge. The recent major commitments by the US and China to serious emissions targets make Australia’s go it alone direct action approach seem pathetic, inadequate and frankly embarrassing as we host the G20 summit this year.
In addition, we are currently seeing epidemics of Non Communicable Diseases burgeoning in rich and poor countries with obesity and diabetes now reaching unprecedented levels. A new non government organisation called NCDFree, led by a bright young inspiring Australian Alessandro Damaio, now based at Harvard, is leading the charge internationally against this problem. So it’s a perfect time to think about how we can reduce greenhouse gases and reduce non-communicable diseases at the same time.
In 2014, we have a very real opportunity to rethink and redesign our societies and cities in ways that are going to make the world healthier and more sustainable places to live not just for the next few decades but for centuries to come. I’m sure that the young generation is going to grasp this challenge with both hands with their usual vigor and commitment, even if the older generation need a bit of cajoling to get on board.