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Local doctors message to Federal candidates – time’s up on climate change and health

Local doctors message to Federal candidates – time’s up on climate change and health

After a season of deadly and devastating floods, the (still-recent) heat and drought can seem like a distant memory. For Moruya resident Janice de Jager, it’s not. “I was a fit and healthy 67-year-old stall holder at the Moruya Market, until one hot Saturday, I had a cardiac arrest and almost died,” Ms de Jager says.

It was late 2018, in the midst of the worst drought in NSW. The festive season was around the corner, as was the hottest and driest year on record for Australia. “I was packing up my stall at the end of the market, in the heat of the day and the next thing I knew, I was in the cardiac unit of Canberra Hospital,” remembers Janice.

I first met Janice when she was unconscious at Moruya Markets. With the assistance of friends, a pool lifeguard and prompt access to a defibrillator, we were able to save her life. Janice later found out that her heart muscle had been weakened by chemotherapy following breast cancer some years earlier and it chose that day, in the heat and exertion, to stop beating.

The connection between heat exposure and illness is a growing concern for doctors around the world.

Right now, a punishing heatwave in India is seeing the country experiencing its hottest April ever, and the temperatures are deadly. It’s now well established that increasing temperatures, and in particularly heat waves, are a significant risk for precipitating heart attacks, strokes, blood clots, kidney failure and a host of other illnesses. When you overlay climate change – and the future predictions if we continue on with business as usual – heat related deaths are going to become increasingly common.

Since the day I met Janice, I worry about how climate change is making our planet hotter and deadlier and how it is going to impact every one of us, but particularly our children and our vulnerable. It will be commonplace to have outdoor events, like Moruya Markets, cancelled because it’s unsafe to be outside in such hot weather. No one is going to want to be outside on 50-degree days - which is what is projected to become the norm at the rate we’re going.

It’s vital our elected officials address these issues – our health and wellbeing depends on it. With fellow Gilmore resident and Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) board member Dr Stefanie Pidcock, we have met federal candidates, including current MP Fiona Phillips and former state MP Andrew Constance.

Our message to them: we must raise the bar on climate action.

Working at Bega Hospital, Dr Pidcock sees patients like Janice de Jager often – lucky enough to have survived a heart attack in the community and landing in a tertiary hospital for further treatment.

Dr Stefanie Pidcock is on a mission to motivate all candidates to engage with climate policy this upcoming election. She says: “Whichever candidate wins the seat, we are looking to them to drive more ambitious national plans to cut climate pollution within their party. This includes banning new coal, gas and oil projects and ending public funding to fossil fuels and accelerating the transition to renewable energy and transport.”

Currently neither Labor nor Liberal parties hold such policies. “Without deep cuts in our emissions this decade, we don’t have a hope of keeping our planet under 1.5 degrees. In fact, we are staring down the barrel of a hellish and inescapable hothouse.”

Australia’s healthcare sector contributes seven percent of Australia’s overall carbon pollution. No party has a plan to address this.

“DEA is calling for the development of a National Sustainability Healthcare Unit, to help reduce our sector’s own carbon pollution,” says Dr Pidcock. “The UK is leagues ahead in this space and proving to be incredibly effective at reducing waste while also saving money. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can implement successful measures now. We just need federal government commitment.”

DEA and other peak health organisations have been tirelessly working on a National Climate Change and Health Strategy. The work has been done, but now it's time for our elected representatives to implement these important strategies.

Action on climate change has significant benefits for human health. If we stop burning toxic fossils fuels for energy and transport, we could all breathe easier knowing we have taken a first necessary step to a brighter future.

Luckily, Ms de Jager has made a full recovery. But without an ambitious carbon reduction plan, stories like hers are going to become more frequent as our planet heats up. She keeps a close eye on her health these days, and stays active with Pilates, gardening and walking her dog, but avoids exerting herself on hot days.

She says: “Having been healthy until that day, I realised that we are all vulnerable to the effects of climate change, be it heat, smoke, floods, fires or plagues. My message to all Gilmore residents is to vote for climate action so we can all have a healthy future.”

Personally, I’d sleep much easier at night if our government was doing more. I’ve dedicated my spare time to climate action and advocacy, for my children, my community and my planet – including in this recent Australian Conservation Foundation sponsored advertisement screening across the country. Most Australians agree that nothing is more important than this issue. We all have a part to play in this critical time.