30 May 2014

Strange disjunction

There's a strange disjunction at the moment between public policy and science. I hear scientists and there's no doubt about climate change (outside normal scientific skepticism, of course) but you could think there's doubt if you followed the media or the recent actions by our new government. I know people who have that doubt and I, for one, can't understand it. As someone involved in risk management, I can't understand it, let alone as a citizen and as a parent. Scientists are talking death-ray-emergency and government is dismantling anything we may do about it. Strange and scary. I tend to take the generous view of people, that they believe what they are saying, and I understand that people read what they trust and believe it. But even this requires someone to start all the misinformation off (and the giveaway, to pay for it) and people who will sell their souls and the future of civilisation for the sake of a few bucks. What is happening?

So what's today's presentation. This was a forum, chaired by Genevieve Jacobs of ABC666 with Tony McMichael AO, Prof Barbara Norman and Dr Peter Tait. Admittedly, these are all anthropomorphic climate change recognisers. You can look up their roles (below); they were an impressive trio. The topic was Making us sick! : understanding the health effects of climate change. The session was sponsored by the Dept of Industry as an Science & Technology Australia (STA) Topical Science Forum. This was mostly questions to three speakers, so no one particular line of reasoning, but lots of factoids and quotes of note. Here are some. "Potentially catastrophic threat". There's an interdependency of health, society and environment. Human health features little in climate change discourse, and when it does, at a "trivial " level (eg, heatwaves) but the environment is essential for human physical survival. We can't expect the "white coated" view of climate scientists (this is a complex multidisciplinary topic with uncertainties) but "many of our poorly informed parliamentarians hold this image". We can quantify some issues (eg, 1deg rise = 7% rise in diarrhoeal diseases) but the biggie is food and less easily predicted. The requirement of certainly before action is a "red herring"; we need "adaptive governance". The least advantaged and more peripheral are the most vulnerable. The pathways to solutions are through cities (Ban Ki-Moon). Canberra has an opportunity to be a leader, given one government and intelligent, often expert, population (Canberra can seem like a town of "300,000 planners"). There's anecdotal evidence only in GP practice, not at epidemiological level. "Moderation in all things" must include the ruminants, thus meat and dairy. Weather influences discussions on climate change [just watch as the next El Niño sets in]. We must change systems [yes, we are all products of our social environment]. Cuts in Foreign aid display a "barricade mentality developing in this country" and it's stupid, given the implications for security and defence ("not only mean but also totally stupid"). Climate refugees will come to our doorstep and "they won't not come in because we've removed [climate change] from our budget". I liked this one: talking of not having to live in caves if we move to renewables, "in fact, if we don't reduce use of resources, we're more likely to return to living in caves". "Working in this field you can get depressed" but the best antidote is activity. This budget shows a government can do anything it wants to do [but I wondered if it can without the Senate in tow]. Surprisingly and carelessly, mud brick houses fail the environmental star system, so changes are required. Panelists desired measurements "beyond GDP" and broader news on TV replacing Alan Kohler and the share market. And following a discussion of words like sustainable, "whatever word we use, it will be misused". And some despair: "I feel we're living in mediaeval times". Thoughts on mental health and youth: "mental health is the great Cinderella problem". There was more, but this was a taste.

Tony McMichael AO is Professor Emeritus of Population Health at ANU, an elected member of the US National Academies of Science, Honorary Professor of Climate Change and Health at the University of Copenhagen and a Director of The Climate Institute.

Professor Barbara Norman is Foundation Chair of Urban and Regional Planning in the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, Univ of Canberra, Director of Canberra Urban and Regional Futures (CURF), an Adjunct Professor at ANU, Chair of the ACT Climate Change Council, Deputy Chair of Regional Development Australia (ACT), Life Fellow and past national president of the Planning Institute of Australia and Life Honorary Fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute (UK).

Dr Peter Tait is a General Practitioner for 32 years, 29 in Aboriginal health in Central Australia. He was the 2007 Royal Australian College of General Practitioners GP of the Year, is Adjunct Senior Lecturer at ANU Medical School and involved in climate change research at the UNSW and ANU.

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