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Ophthalmologists sign open letter calling for meaningful action on climate change

RANZCO is a signatory in an open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison warning that Australia must significantly lift its commitment to the global effort to bring climate change under control, to save lives and protect health.

Just weeks before the COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Australian doctors have called on the Prime Minister to commit to an ambitious national plan to protect health by cutting Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, aligned to science-based targets, this decade.

The open letter was signed by the Australian Medical Association, Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) and 10 medical colleges, including RANZCO.

“As doctors, we understand the imminent health threats posed by climate change and have seen them already emerge in Australia. The 2019-2020 bushfire season in Australia saw parts of the country afflicted by the poorest air quality in the world, with large numbers of the population enduring weeks of bushfire smoke and the related adverse health impacts,” the letter states.

“That climate disaster also tragically took more than 30 lives as a direct result of the fires. Since then, we have seen the stark impacts of extreme weather events playing out in the northern hemisphere in 2021. Flooding, fires and heatwaves not only have immediate health risks, but also come with the longer-term physical, economic and mental impacts of displacement, loss of life and loss of livelihoods.”

Signatories to the open letter. Image: Australian Medical Association

In the letter, the doctors and medical colleges said the Federal Government’s plan to cut Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions should include policies that accelerate the transition to renewable energy and acknowledge its health benefits.

It said the plan must also increase Australia’s Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris Agreement at UN climate negotiations (COP26), in line with limiting global warming to 1.5 C.

RANZCO Sustainability Committee chair Dr Jesse Gale said the committee recommended the RANZCO Board join the open letter, which it agreed to do.

Dr Jesse Gale, RANZCO.

“The early effects of climate change on health in Australia do not impact eye health directly, but immediately there are issues of equity that we all care about,” Gale said.

“As the climate continues to change the impacts will broaden to become one of the greatest threats to health and wellbeing. Doctors must show leadership in acting within our practice to decarbonise the health sector, and also advocating for more urgent decarbonisation across society.”

Gale said the health sector had not seen changes in ophthalmic diseases or service delivery from climate change at this point. But ophthalmologists and clinical services will be affected by disruption of many common services such as supply chains, water supplies, transport systems.

“In general, climate change could be expected to increase trauma/injuries from extreme weather, and infectious diseases,” he added.

“The biggest changes we expect to see are from mitigating emissions: reducing our consumption, reusing items, recycling where necessary, reconsidering low value care, rethinking transport patterns and clinical pathways.”

AMA president Dr Omar Khorshid said the government must urgently act to significantly reduce emissions this decade, with the arrival of severe fires, superstorms and floods destroying lives.

DEA chair Dr John Van Der Kallen said doctors were already dealing with the reality of climate change in their surgeries and in emergency departments.

“Failure to act urgently on climate change risks unmanageable threats to the health of all Australians,” Van Der Kallen said.

The open leter can be downloaded on this page.

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