UK doctors and senior military cooperate to warn people of the dangers of climate change

6/4/2011 Guardian Doctors urged to take climate leadership role.A woman covers her nose and mouth in an attempt to avoid breathing in roadside
air pollution in Hong Kong. Military and medical experts have warned that
climate change poses a grave threat to health around the world. Doctors must take a leading role in highlighting the dangers of
climate change, which will lead to conflict, disease and ill-health, and
threatens global security, according to a stark warning from an unusual alliance
of physicians and military leaders.
Writing in the British Medical Journal on Tuesday, a group of military and
medical experts, including two rear admirals and two professors of health, sent
out an urgent message to governments around the world. “Climate change poses an
immediate and grave threat, driving ill-health and increasing the risk of
conflict, such that each feeds upon the other,” said the authors, Lionel Jarvis,
surgeon rear admiral at the UK’s Ministry of Defence; Hugh Montgomery, professor
of human health at UCL, London; Neil Morisetti, rear admiral and climate and
security envoy for the UK; and Ian Gilmore, professor at the Royal Liverpool
hospital. “Like all good medicine, prevention is the key.”
The threat to national security and health from global warming have been
addressed separately in the past, but the BMJ editorial urges governments to
treat them together. “It might be considered unusual for the medical and
military professions to concur,” wrote the authors. “But on this subject we do.”
The authors urge doctors to use their position of trust in society to build
support for action on climate change. “Although discussion is good, we can no
longer delay implementing tough action that will make a difference, while
quibbling over minor uncertainties in climate modelling. Unlike most recent
natural disasters, this one is entirely predictable,” they warned. “Doctors,
often seen as authoritative, trusted, and independent by their communities, must
make their voices heard in calling for such action.”
Prof Montgomery told the Guardian that doctors should take up the climate
challenge just as they did with the harm from tobacco. “Many doctors see
suffering and death first-hand on a daily basis. They recognise that prevention
is far better than waiting for disease, when cure may not in fact be possible.
They are also uniquely able to translate abstract harm into a vision of real
suffering- just as they were with cigarette smoking and lung cancer,” he said.
“Now, as then, they must play their part - impressing upon their governments the
immediacy and gravity of climate change and its impacts on their citizens, and
those of other countries.”
Prof Gilmore added that doctors could have an influence both as a body and in
their individual work: “Some of the things that are good for health are also
good for the climate, like exercise and a diet that is lower in meat. That’s a
win-win situation.”
But doctors could also influence government policy, and the NHS’s policy on
greenhouse gases, he said: “We have a responsibility to steer the government
towards more climate-sensitive policies.”
Such a call is likely to be seen as controversial by many in the medical
profession, and beyond it, particularly in the light of last year’s
“climategate” controversy in which many scientists found themselves under attack
from commentators and bloggers.
While medical journals have highlighted the problems of climate change in the
past, few physicians have spoken out on the issue.
The warning from medical and military leaders came as government officials from
around the world met in Bangkok in the latest round of the long-running talks
under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
(UNFCCC). The Bangkok conference, which is a preliminary session to the major
meeting in Durban this December, is low-key and not expected to produce a
Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, told the conference that
Bangkok was an opportunity to consolidate the gains made at last year’s Cancún
climate conference, when several important issues - including forestry - were
broadly resolved.
“Here in Bangkok, governments have the early opportunity to push ahead to
complete the concrete work they agreed in Cancún, and to chart a way forward
that will ensure renewed success at the next UN climate change conference in
Durban,” she said. “If governments move forward in the continued spirit of
flexibility and compromise that inspired them in Mexico, then I’m confident they
can make significant new progress in 2011.”
But several major issues remain to be resolved, she acknowledged, including the
future of the Kyoto protocol and building the institutions necessary to deliver
greenhouse gas emissions cuts and financing.
The BMJ’s warning, carried in an editorial in the magazine, drew on several
sources, including the Pentagon’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review to Congress,
which highlighted the national security aspects of climate change, and
statements from the UK’s ministry of defence and the foreign secretary, William
Hague, who called global warming “perhaps the 21st century’s biggest foreign
policy challenge”. The BMJ authors found that climate change would exacerbate
“poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile
But the scale of the challenge is such that the involvement of doctors and tough
actions on emissions are necessary, according to the authors. “We must adapt our
cities and their infrastructure to cope with these challenges through combining
engineering design and public health initiatives – for example, developing
resilience in clean water and drainage systems, using human and food waste for
energy generation, and building roads to act as flood pathways. At the same time
we need to ensure that the military can still operate effectively to sustain
security in this changing environment. As with prevention, effective adaptation
will require an approach that encompasses the whole of society and international
The editorial was published ahead of an open meeting on climate change, medicine
and security, scheduled to take place on 20 June at the British Medical
Association in London.
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