Doctors may be the strongest advocates for preventative measures that are urgently needed to stop the rising health threat of global warming, leading epidemiologists and a healthcare advocate have advised in the latest issue of the Medical Journal of Australia.
Climate change is now widely acknowledged as the greatest environmental threat that human civilisation faces, said Dr Rosalie Woodruff of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, ANU.
"(If global average temperatures increase) above 2 degrees, agricultural yields are predicted to fail, several billion people would experience increased water stress, additional hundreds of millions may go hungry, sea level rise may displace millions from coasts, and infectious disease risks multiply," Dr Woodruff warns.
Recent evidence on shrinkage of the Antarctic ice mass suggests that the pace of these changes far exceeds previous estimates and that there is only a narrow window of remaining time during which they can be minimised. To do so most experts agree will require rapid stabilisation of worldwide emissions, according to Richard Kefford, Professor of Medicine at Sydney University's Westmead Hospital.
"Societies everywhere are vulnerable to extreme and unpredictable weather," Dr Woodruff says.
"We are beginning to understand the challenge that human-induced climate change poses for us.
"In the best traditions of public health the focus must be on primary prevention.
"If early action is taken, a 60% reduction in Australian greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is possible, while still maintaining strong economic growth.
"Climate change is a global problem that requires responses at multinational as well as national levels. Mitigation policy in Australia still lags behind Europe, and our government has not yet set a national greenhouse gas emissions reduction target beyond 2012."
Doctors should take a lead in this push for prevention of climate change, Prof Kefford says.
"We can inform the debate with reliable data on the mental and physical health consequences of global warming, and utilise our expertise on human behavioural responses to overwhelming threat to convert despair into constructive action. Doctors did this successfully in response to the threat of nuclear annihilation in the 1980s and we can do it again," he explains.