Blacklock: What does the climate crisis demand from healthcare professionals?

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Harvard physician Dr. Alexander Leaf was by all accounts an exemplary, calm and humble human being, a man of a wide variety of interests and skills. Numerous obituaries published after his death in 2013 testify to his accomplishments as a physician, leader, teacher, mentor and researcher.

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In 1961, Leaf became a founding member of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR). At a time of deep Cold War tension, the PSR warned Americans of the dangers of nuclear proliferation and advocated for a world without nuclear weapons. Their work contributed to the signing of a limited test ban treaty in 1963.

The late 1960s saw a nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which ushered in a decade of detente. Relative peace was shattered in 1979 by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

A year later, one of the most unlikely medical meetings in history took place in Geneva: a reunion of six American and Soviet doctors. On the other side of the cleavage imposed by the Iron Curtain, a meeting of minds took place and two principles took shape:

1) Physicians have a responsibility to protect life and preserve health.

2) Nuclear war is deeply dangerous.

From this meeting, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) was born. Alexander Leaf has become a prominent member. Four years later, the IPPNW received the Nobel Peace Prize “for disseminating authoritative information and for raising awareness of the catastrophic consequences of atomic war”.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. That same year, Alexander Leaf wrote the first major medical article on the potential health effects of climate change for the New England Journal of Medicine. His conclusion: “The expense (of action) may be considerable, but the cost of doing nothing is incalculable.

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Leaf later wrote in his 1996 memoir: “There are social and man-made dangers with possible dire consequences for human health.

He probably had nuclear weapons and greenhouse gases in mind.

Today, a movement is brewing to propel the nations of the world towards a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. The parallels with anti-nuclear activism should be obvious. I am happy to announce that 100 Nobel Prize winners, including 30 Physiology and Medicine Prize winners, and countless other scientists, academics and medical professionals (including me), have joined the Dalai Lama in demanding that fossil fuels are left in the ground.

The focus of the proposed fossil fuel treaty highlights a puzzling point: although the 2015 Paris Agreement was a significant step forward, it forgets to mention coal, oil or natural gas. It’s a strange oversight when you think about it.

In contrast, proponents of a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty are not mince words when it comes to the fossil fuel trio. Such a treaty would require a firm commitment from all nations of the world to halt any further expansion of coal, oil and natural gas production, phase out all existing production, and fund a peaceful and just transition to renewable energy for all. .

This year, a treaty banning nuclear weapons entered into force. The only problem is this: none of the nuclear nations have signed. We cannot let this happen with fossil fuels. We must do better because even if humanity can still avoid nuclear annihilation, there will be no escape from the laws of physics. The more fossil fuels we burn, the hotter things will get on this planet and the worse it will be for us and our health.

I suggest it is time to develop the principles laid out by physicians like Alexander Leaf and organizations like PSW and IPPNW:

1) Healthcare professionals have a responsibility to protect life and preserve health.

2) The burning of fossil fuels is deeply dangerous to human health.

And it is time to ask ourselves: what is then asked of us? Personally. Professionally. And above all politically.

Dr. Elaine Blacklock (aka @KidsClimateDoc) is a pediatrician and science writer in Sudbury. Dr Blacklock is currently writing a book on climate change and our health.


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