There is one global health issue more pressing than any other – climate change.
Dr Helen Redmond, visiting medical officer for Sydney's MetroRehab Hospital and divestment convenor for Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), gave a TED talk in late 2020 explaining how climate change impacts on public health.
“This is not a distant problem, this is affecting our personal health now and into the future – we all breathed in that bushfire smoke last summer, what’s the long term effects of that?” she said.
“When it came to COVID, we all acted on the public health advice and it’s time to do that again when it comes to climate change.”
In her TED talk, Dr Redmond noted critical medical issues directly arising from climate change, such as increased rates of asthma and dehydration, as well as cases of elderly people presenting to hospital with organ failure due to ongoing heatwaves.
“In 2009, The Lancet said climate change was the greatest global health threat. A new study from Harvard looking at air pollution has estimated 5,000 or more people each year die in Australia due to air pollution from burning coal, oil and gas,” she said.
“So that’s without taking into consideration pollution from fires or dust. We think we have clean air here, yet our major cities don’t meet WHO air quality standards.”
As part of her work with DEA, Dr Redmond lobbies state and federal politicians for change in health and environmental regulations. She admits it is a frustrating process.
“I feel there is a degree of stasis and wilful ignorance, that is very disturbing.
“But at a state level, conservative governments – for example here in New South Wales – are doing really good things. And we never give up, you have to keep on engaging, and there are many on the conservative side of politics who get it and they want more action,” she said.
“It’s with some dismay that we see the money for economic recovery being spent on gas – imagine that money being spent on renewable energy for hospitals, for sustainable healthcare. Spending money on gas, I mean, talk about picking a loser!
“And for people who rely on the coal industry for work, they’re going to lose their jobs. We know this is coming, so we need to be helping people transition now so those communities stay viable.”
Dr Redmond said the COVID-19 pandemic had given the world a chance to reset.
“We’ve all had to look at our lives – limit our travel, our consumption, and look to a type of lifestyle that is closer to home, focused on our health, our community.
“Yes, we are going to open up and fly again, but maybe we don’t need to go overseas twice a year,” she said.
“You have to ask, what are your priorities, for your family, your community, your personal health?
“I feel like nature is breathing a sigh of relief at the moment and it gives us an opportunity to rebuild our systems with a different emphasis. We’re all part of the solution.”
Despite the sobering message in her TED talk, Dr Redmond said it was not too late to save the planet while tackling serious health problems, and the old adage “think globally, act locally” really did work.
“When it comes to food, you can eat less meat and dairy. Even eating grass-fed meat, as opposed to grain-fed, can make a difference.
“You don’t have to be vegan. And if you have the space, try growing your own fruit and veggies, or buy them from a farmers market,” she said.
“It takes one phone call to switch your energy to green power, it’s so simple. And look at your money – is your bank and your super fund still investing in fossil fuels?
“You don’t have to make radical change. Instead of jumping in your SUV, take public transport and make it part of the outing, get your steps up, spend time with your family.
“It’s about making choices. And what’s good for you is good for the planet.”
Dr Redmond said she was thrilled to see the younger generation leading the way.
“I see it in organisations I deal with all the time, the young staffers are all nodding, they know, they don’t have to have this explained to them – generational change is here.
“Events like the school strike for climate change is so humbling and inspiring,” she said.
Dr Redmond vowed to continue to lobby for change, particularly at a federal government level.
“The main points from my TED talk were that: A, this is an emergency; but also B, there’s so much we can do, there’s so many opportunities to improve our health and the planet,” she said.
“There are 'win-wins' wherever you look, we just have to get into a different way of thinking.”