Intended for healthcare professionals

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Analysis Essay

Why doctors and their organisations must help tackle climate change: an essay by Eric Chivian

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 02 April 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g2407

Rapid Response:

Re: Why doctors and their organisations must help tackle climate change: an essay by Eric Chivian

I was dismayed to read Eric Chivian’s essay exhorting the medical profession to indulge in political activism and to what is little more than a scare campaign.

As doctors we are more likely to campaign against energy policies than mean the poor, aged and vulnerable have to choose whether to heat or to eat and against sky rocketing food prices because arable land is being turned over to the production of biofuels to satisfy carbon reduction targets.

His clinical example of the precautionary principle, a feverish infant being given antibiotics before the result of CSF culture, is a poor analogy for climate change mitigation policies. A closer example would be having one’s arm amputated for a whitlow just in case it proves to be necrotising fasciitis.

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently published the second part of its latest report, on the likely impact of climate change. What is interesting about this report is that, in spite of the standard warnings of imminent environmental apocalypse in the summary, the actual report itself drastically tones down the capability and the reliability of climate forecasts. It goes further and reduces the upper limit of the estimated cost of a 2.5C rise in average global temperature by a factor of ten from that quoted in the much touted Stern Report which was one of the main drivers for the ruinous UK Climate Change Act of 2008. In fact, it places a much greater emphasis on adaptation as opposed to mitigation than any previous UN report. This change of tack has been brought about not only by increasing scepticism amongst the general public but also by the ever widening divergence between observational data and the predictions of the current generation of climate models.

Climate has changed throughout our planet’s history and there is nothing that humans can do with current technology to stop it from continuing to do so. The latest IPCC report appears to suggest that we cannot be certain about what form this change may take. Adaptation carries a far better prospect of cost effectiveness. These measures, such as flood protection, target existing problems that may or may not become worse in the future. This means the benefits are available locally, immediately and regardless of whether global temperatures start to rise again or not. No ever elusive international treaties are required.

Richard Lindzen, Professor of Meteorology at MIT, when addressing the UK House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee in January this year said, “Nothing you can do will do anything to change your climate but it can seriously damage your economy”. Far better we use our resources to make sure that our children and grandchildren will be richer and better equipped to cope with anything that nature (and the climate) might throw at them. Anything else would be folly.

Competing interests: No competing interests

06 April 2014
Mario S Sammut
Consultant Anaesthetist
Freeman Hospital
Newcastle upon Tyne NE7 7DN