Troubled Planet

Time and tide wait for no man

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.325.7378.1466 (Published 21 December 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:1466
  1. David Shearman, emeritus professor of medicine (mountlofty@ozemail.com.au)
  1. Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA, Australia
  1. Correspondence to: D Shearman, 2 Reynolds Drive, Crafers, SA 5152, Australia

    Global warming presents a new hazard to human health. Recognising the predominant human mechanisms for our failure to address this problem may help in formulating strategies for action

    Humanity is making little progress in solving the global issues of war, famine, poverty, environmental destruction, population overload, and climate change that increasingly threaten its wellbeing, health, and survival. The national and international responses to all these major problems are totally inadequate, and the medical profession should be active in seeking remedies.

    Summary points

    Climate change presents a unique threat to humanity because it is difficult to comprehend responsibility beyond our existing descendants

    Our psychological mechanisms and economic ideology also preclude effective action

    Doctors have the skill and responsibility to help solve global issues

    The medical profession must work to influence governments and their leaders by personal interaction and persuasion

    While all these global issues seem insoluble in their scale and complexity, global warming presents a particular and unfamiliar hazard to human health. The United States, with 4% of the world's population, produces a quarter of its greenhouse gases. The BMJ has addressed the inadequacies of the US president's response to global warming.1 Ill health due to climate change is likely to arise both directly (such as via thermal stress) and through complex mechanisms that disturb ecological systems, many of which are already stressed by pollution, bio-invasion, and loss of resilience due to altered biodiversity. For example, the impacts of climate change on plant physiology and agroecosystem functioning may interact with soil degradation to decrease the yields of crops needed to feed a growing human population. Global warming may thus impair health by reductions in nutrition, economic activity, and habitable locations and increases in infectious diseases. Extreme weather events and a changing distribution of precipitation could cause physical disasters, exacerbate conflicts, and augment …

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