Neurologist calls on doctors to tackle the biggest threat to human health: fossil fuels


By Rosanne Barrett

7 Mar 2022

Neurologist Dr Carolyn Orr says that after successfully confronting Big Tobacco, doctors must now recognise climate change as “the biggest threat to human health in the 21th century”.

The Perth-based consultant and member of activist group Doctors for the Environment, recently told the University of Western Australia’s TEDx conference, TEDxUWA, there was a clear link between fossil fuel-generated air pollution and poor health outcomes.

“Air pollution is now recognised as a leading cause of death and disease among human beings,” she told TEDxUWA.

“The evidence for this is so strong and so incontrovertible that the World Health Organization recently dramatically tightened their recommendations on preventable air pollutants. And the biggest preventable air pollution is fossil fuels.”

Dr Orr, who was arrested and fined for peaceful civil disobedience during an Extinction Rebellion protest in 2020, said preventable air pollution contributed to a range of diseases from SIDS to asthma and childhood cancer, to heart, kidney and liver disease, and stroke and dementia.

“[They] may end up coming to see a neurologist like me,” she said. “We now understand that the answer for many of my patients is that their illness comes from air pollution, and air pollution is unavoidable. We all have to breathe.

“The deadly link between air pollution and climate change is fossil fuels.”

Dr Orr issued a call to arms for people concerned about climate to divest from companies in their investments, such as superannuation, banking and insurance.

This was the decisive decade to take action to limit global warming to well below the Paris Agreement target of 2℃, preferably to 1.5℃, compared to pre-Industrial levels. Without swift and severe action to transition to renewable energy, climate change-induced temperature rises and extreme weather would lead to greater health impacts.

These would range in impact from heatstroke and the inability to work outside, to displacement due to natural disasters, and increased global conflict.

“This future is not inevitable,” she said. “Our rapid, urgent transition to renewables this decade will protect our health and the health of our children for the rest of our lives and beyond. But it has got to be this decade.

“Slogans like net zero by 2050 give the mistaken impression that we have 30 years to make a gradual change from fossil to renewable. The science tells us this is not the case. Only that will protect us from the profound health consequences of climate change.”

Dr Orr told the limbic that doctors should advocate for a rapid energy transition to net zero emissions by 2035 in Australia.

She said the response had been mixed, and compared climate activism among the health sector as akin to the anti-tobacco campaigns of past decades.

“Many doctors still don’t understand the threat to human health from fossil fuels, the biggest preventable cause of air pollution and the main cause of climate change,” she said.

“One in five humans dies currently because of fossil fuel air pollution; and climate change is a bigger health threat yet. In the 1950s it must have seemed unthinkable that the medical profession would become the main enemy of Big Tobacco, yet we did and are. We now have to face down Big Fossil.”

“Delay on climate means failure. If we are to keep planetary heating to 1.5C, we need a massive shift from fossil fuels to renewables this decade. Delaying this transition makes achieving 1.5 C impossible, and locks us into profound negative consequences for planetary and human health.”


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