GPs are used to dealing with the politics of health, from the cost shifting which sees patients discharged with scripts they cannot afford to fill through to the regulations around ordering MRIs (to name but two). Clearly, political decisions impact our delivery of primary health care. So it should not be surprising that health practitioners may wish to influence policies on a scale broader than just dealing with health care delivery, widening our perspective to look at the social and environmental determinants of health.

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) arose as a branch of the International Society of Doctors for the Environment (ISDE), founded in 1990 and now having member organisations in over 30 countries.

The aims of ISDE are to publicise the relationship between the condition of the environment and human health, to promote environmentally friendly behaviour amongst physicians, patients, and the public, and to cooperate at all political levels in the reduction of harmful environmental influences on health.  

DEA has been an active voice in Australia since 2002 and  the organisation regularly publishes its position papers on climate change and human health

The Bureau of Meteorology recently released data showing that Australia's mean temperature for January 2019 exceeded 30, the first time this has occurred for any month. National temperatures have increased by more than 1 degree over the past 100 years. Prolonged periods of heatwave conditions are particularly dangerous as they place increased pressure on emergency services, increase air pollutants, interrupt electricity supplies and transport services, increase the incidence of workplace accidents and injuries, and contribute to drought and its profound impact on mental health. 

Hot weather can also mean increased bushfire risk with more extreme fire weather and longer bushfire seasons. Bushfires have direct impacts on physical and mental health through burns, heat stress, trauma and death. Bushfire smoke can directly trigger heart attack and lung complaints, increase hospital admissions, and cause death. 

Hotter than average conditions in Australia and the polar vortex which froze North America are due to climate change directly caused by the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from human activities, mainly the burning of fossil fuels. CO2 is approximately 410ppm, higher than it has been in over 400,000 years and we have all seen the graph showing the correlation between CO2 levels and temperature. 

Australia is a technologically advanced nation and we have bountiful supplies of sun, wind and other renewables to easily achieve zero emissions in power generation. Individuals and companies are investing in these technologies as a way to reduce power bills and ensure uninterrupted supply, however to date there has been a lack of meaningful investment at a Federal or State level.

As we subsidise the fossil fuel industry to a tune of around $12bn p.a, it is evident that what has been lacking is political will, which Nobel laureate Al Gore defined as one of the “ultimately renewable resources”.

I am a GP. For over a decade I worked as a locum in rural and remote Indigenous communities, where the resilience and long view of the original inhabitants of this country never failed to impress me. As one elder said to me: “Healthy people caring for healthy country is what makes a healthy society”.

We know that people cannot be healthy if the air they breathe, water they drink and food they eat (all from country) are polluted. Equally we know that actively caring for country keeps people healthy both physically and emotionally. With this year’s elections in NSW and federally, it is timely to consider how our votes can influence policies that will affect the environment, the health of our nation and our planet into the future. Collectively we can do more and I urge you to consider supporting the important work of DEA.