If Owen Paterson was your GP, would you look for a new one? By David McCoy

10 February 2014 — OurNHS

Owen Paterson is embattled over his response to the floods but it is his reaction to climate change science – and his misreading of the impacts on both our environment and our health – that are of greatest concern.

Paterson, as Secretary of State for the Environment, leads on government policy on climate change. His reaction to the latest report on the physical science of climate change by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) raises questions about his fitness to play this vital role. If his attitude towards the care of the planet were transposed to a GP caring for a patient, would I advise the patient to find another GP?

 Medact is an organisation of health professionals which campaigns on the root causes of poor health including poverty, war and environmental damage. It works to harness the expertise and authority of health professionals to deliver progressive social change, and to help make the world better, safer and fairer.

Climate change is possibly the biggest public health threat the world faces. While most individual health professionals are focused on the health of their patients, collectively we need to see the health of the planet as being as important as the health of people. This requires some knowledge of climate science.

Climate scientists need (and want) to share their knowledge with other scientists and professionals. The response to global warming requires joint working across scientific disciplines. And the ‘health community’ – as trusted professionals – should provide greater civic leadership to an unsure public about ‘global warming’.

Medact has produced a summary and discussion of the latest IPCC report on the causes of climate change, aimed at the ‘health community’. Few will have made it through the IPCC’s heavy-going own summary of their 2000+ page report. We hope our alternative is more accessible – but without ‘dumbing down’ the complexity of climate science.

Our report explains in simple, evidence-based terms the extent to which the planet is heating up; how this is destabilising the climate, raising the sea level and acidifying our oceans; and why this is happening. We discuss the current levels of scientific certainty regarding climate change.

The public has grown more skeptical and confused about global warming and climate change, according to a recent survey conducted by the UK Energy Research Centre.

And yet, the science is clear that the earth is warming and that greenhouse gas emissions are a major cause.

Perhaps public scepticism and confusion is not surprising.

On publication of the IPCC report Owen Paterson remarked “people get very emotional about this subject” and suggested we “should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries”.

Although Paterson accepts climate change as a fact, his view is that the IPCC report “shows a really quite modest increase” in temperature and that “for humans, the biggest cause of death is cold in winter”. He also suggested that global warming could bring benefits by extending the growing season of crops in Europe.

Paterson’s comments appear to dismiss the fact that climate change is a global problem already negatively affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Of course there is a natural variability to the climate. And of course climate science cannot be 100% predictive of future climate patterns. But Paterson downplays the rapid changes to surface temperatures, weather patterns, ocean acidification and the melting of the earth’s ice (the cryosphere) and the unprecedented level of greenhouse gas emissions of the recent past. 

This is one of the key messages of the IPCC report: Limiting any further disruption and destabilisation of the earth’s climate and weather systems, as well as further ocean acidification, will require substantial and sustained reductions of Greenhouse Gas emissions.

Does Paterson misunderstand the science? Is he misrepresenting it? Or is he simply being overly-complacent? We know that there is a well-funded and organised campaign to undermine acceptance of climate science and that it has sought to influence politicians across the world.

Paterson’s views do not compare with the kind of flat-earth thinking demonstrated by some members of the US Congress, nor with the views of top business advisor to Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott who accused the IPCC of “dishonesty and deceit” and claimed global temperatures were not in fact rising.

Nonetheless, his views should concern us. We appear determined to continue burning fossil fuels in spite of the warnings issued by the IPCC.

Those interested in the health of both people and planet are urged to read the IPCC report or Medact’s summary and form their own conclusions.

If the earth was a person and if the evidence of climate science were clinical symptoms and signs, I would be sending it to hospital for immediate treatment. Owen Paterson, instead, would appear to be saying: “take an aspirin and don’t call me in the morning”. 

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