Tuesday, October 6, 2009

100 doctors for the planet

Last month (in late 2009) I was named by the French Environmental Health Association, as part of their "100 doctors for the planet" series. I was nominated after my talk to a working group of the World Medical Association, considering the issue of climate change and health. This led to their Delhi declaration. I was interviewed about this by Dr Sandrine Segovia-Kueny.

Dr Sandrine Segovia-Kueny : What do you think about Global Warming ?
Dr BUTLER : Global warming is not the emperor of global problems, but is certainly one of the princes. It combines with its brothers and sisters (eg weaponisation, human greed and our tolerance of poverty and inequality) to threaten the foundation of civilisation. There are many plausible pathways by which global warming is likely to contribute to collapse, such as regional food scarcity, famine and food riots and relentless sea level rise and massive population dislocation. Unless we are very lucky we will initiate feedbacks which worsen both greenhouse gas emissions (such as by warming the tundra) and governance (such as by bad short-term reactions to long-term problems). The interaction of these issues threatens to overwhelm us.
Dr Sandrine Segovia-Kueny : In your everyday life, how do you act to help the planet ?
Dr BUTLER : I have spent much of my life as a physician trying to get doctors and the public to understand the peril we face, by writing, speaking and doing. In 1983 I was arrested in Australia’s largest environmental protest. In 1989 I stood for the Greens and co-founded BODHI, an NGO which raises funds to help ‘change agents’ in low-income countries improve health, education, rights and justice. I try to be a role model, including by cycling to work and buying electricity sourced from renewable energy. We chose not to have children. I try to minimise waste, especially of food and paper, and I eat mostly vegetarian food and fish. I try to buy ethically sourced products. I own 130 acres of forest which I have protected from clear-felling.
Dr Sandrine Segovia-Kueny : As far as you are concerned, what are the more important risks of the climate change?
Dr BUTLER : I would stress that civilisation – especially its economic system – has not evolved necessarily mature progress indicators. In 1989 I heard Paul Ehrlich use the analogy of two men falling from a skyscraper, one of whom is an economist. The economist says ‘not to worry : demand will create a parachute’. Twenty years later some of us are desperately hoping for a parachute as we fall to Earth, but most of us don’t realise the danger we face. We are getting richer in income but impoverishing nature. We may realise our predicament so belatedly that desperate acts are required such as emergency geo-engineering. The ultimate risk is that climate change-exacerbated resource competition will drive regional or global nuclear conflict.
Dr Sandrine Segovia-Kueny : At work what do you do to fight against climate changes ?
Dr BUTLER: I work at a university which is one of the ‘greenest’ in Australia. Despite the good work there is still unacceptable complacency. Our university could be a role model – peppered with cyclists on paths, photovoltaic cells, solar hot water heating and even solar-thermal generated electricity (we have a research project on this). We run awareness campaigns for double- sided printing, recycling and to turn out lights but have far too many carparks ; we don’t even source ‘green’ electricity. In my department, many cycle to work and most understand the ecological footprint concept. Some colleagues are declining conference invitations unless they can attend virtually. I am an agitator but it’s easy to alienate people by pushing too hard.
Dr Sandrine Segovia-Kueny : Do you know your ecological footprint ?
Dr BUTLER : I know my international travel makes it very, very high. Increasingly I ask if conferences can arrange electronic attendance, but that choice is still rarely available. Earlier in my career if was difficult to decline invitations, but I am now increasingly selective. I try to find several reasons to travel anywhere by air. I almost always use public transport if available. Before I moved to Canberra I had solar hot water and a well-insulated house. I now live in an apartment, but am trying to persuade the body corporate to install photovoltaic cells – and also my university. I console myself by thinking that most of my work, for many years now, has focussed on trying to alert people to the dangers of overpopulation and over-consumption.
Thank you for answering this interview. We would let you know as soon as possible of its date of broadcasting.

A four degree world

In the last fortnight several things have occurred which are deeply troubling. The floods in southern Taiwan (Typhoon Morakut) have been followed by very heavy rain in the northern Philippines (and there is another storm there right now), and record flooding in Karnataka, India. These events are very likely to have adverse agricultural effects and hence harm nutrition and health. The number of hungry on the planet has passed a billion. Climate change is a likely cause. In the short run the Sumatran earthquake and the Samoan tsunami have distracted attention, but climate change has not gone away.

We have also had the Oxford conference on a 4 degree world (to which we contributed a paper about health).  The podcast there called "4°C of climate change: alarmist or realist?" is very good; the conclusion was that an 8 degree world is alarmist, but a 4 degree world is all too plausible. As one participant said: we see a 70 kg person climb into a 1,000 kg car to drive two miles in order to collect a newspaper - and then we want to fix the problem with geo-engineering! (The most plausible form of geo-engineering is to pump large quantities of sulphur into the atmosphere, which may harm the monsoon.)
On the positive side, this morning I participated electronically in an electronic conference held by PAHO (the Pan American Health Organisation) using elluminate software. It was great. In real time I could hear, see powerpoint slides, and send short messages and symbols (eg smile, applause) to other participants (10 English, 70 Spanish).

On the negative side, I just heard Ian MacFarlane, that gravelly voiced member of the Australian opposition, go on about the alleged harm to the Australian economy if we were to take tiny baby steps in reducing our use of fossil fuel. The short and narrow sightedness of so many people in this country (because let's face it, MacFarlane etc represent a great number of Australians) is shameful. The 4 degree conference warns of carbon dioxide levels of 700 ppm or more by 2100. With it will go crop failure, marked sea level rise and millions of environmental refugees. This is a terrifying future – and not far away.

One commentator at the 4°C conference, a journalist, warned that too much emphasis on catastrophe was paralyzing. But others pointed out that we can go too far in the other direction, and that just fuels complacency. A consensus seemed to emerge that scientists must try to convey the full picture, as far as possible.
I also spoke this morning on ABC overnight talk back radio http://www.abc.net.au/overnights/ for 30 minutes (60 channels throughout Australia) about population. Almost every caller thought we have a problem. One asked why population is scarcely mentioned in the context of climate change. I think he had a very good point – but while only a small fraction (maybe 20%) of the global population contribute substantially to climate change there are three reasons to be concerned about the fertility rate of the other 80%. First, rapid population growth in poor countries will make those countries more vulnerable to climate change. Second, in the long run, the climate contribution of several billion poor people is still significant – especially if they do start to want and to afford our kind of lifestyle. Finally, the acceleration of the demographic (fertility) transition in the South (low income countries) is a matter of justice and global human rights. See too our paper on this in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation (Climate change and family planning: least developed countries define the agenda).