Bob Douglas presents at the launch of the new book “Climate Change and Global Health”, Edited by Colin Butler


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On the 9th December 2014, Australia21 Director, Professor Bob Douglas presented at the University of Canberra as a guest speaker for the launch of the new book “Climate Change and Global Health” Edited by Colin Butler. The book comprises 30 chapters and brings together the work of 56 authors from 19 countries.

Below is a transcript from Bob Douglas’ presentation.


“Let me begin by recognising that I am only here playing a part in this launch because of the recent death of my very dear friend Tony McMichael who was to have spoken in this slot today and whose spirit permeates every page of this remarkable volume.

The book with its 30 chapters, and 56 authors from 19 countries is testimony also to the passion, persistence and international connectedness of its editor, Colin Butler who I am proud to say was my Ph.D. student and who, I know from that experience, to have a deep concern about the future of the human world and how we must all contribute to salvaging it from catastrophic collapse.

The central message that I take from the book is that the health, well-being and very survival of humanity is under staggering threat from anthropogenic climate change and that our species is currently sleepwalking into oblivion.

Many of the authors and contributors to the volume have been distinguished participants in the deliberations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been carefully and systematically, over the past four decades, piecing together the evidence and likely direction of climate change in coming decades if we keep on with “business as usual”.

The IPCC has been extremely measured and careful in its predictions. Perhaps too measured and too careful and constrained by an unwillingness to move beyond 95% statistical certainty about the long-term, and even the near-term implications of anthropogenic climate change for our overpopulated, resource constrained human world.

The framework for this book that has been established by Professor Butler’s work over the past ten years, has enabled authors to move into territory that has been largely avoided by the more conventional framework for climate change science.

You already have a taste of the book from Will Steffen’s presentation of the Anthropocene, which is also the topic of his opening chapter in the book. As Will makes clear, we are now living in a new and incredibly dangerous world; we have crossed several critical boundaries, and have already exceeding the long term sustainability of the planet. The future of our descendants is under real threat. The combination of industrialisation, growth in human population, rising expectations as a result of cheap energy and the impact of accumulated carbon emissions in the atmosphere mean that the change in global temperature will not only produce specific changes in our health but will almost certainly result in early collapse of human civilisation unless we can engineer a radical change in human values, behaviour and in the nature of the greenhouse blanket which encircles us and is already impacting on our lives

In 1993, the late Tony Michael published a seminal book entitled “Planetary overload. This set the course for his own subsequent career, in which he impeccably and painstakingly focused on the primary anticipated effects of a change in global temperature on human health. What Tony’s protégé, Colin Butler has done in this book is to take the health impact analysis to the next stage, considering also the probable secondary and tertiary consequences for human health and well-being of the climate changes that are now in train.

McMichael’s chapter 2 in the book points out that the focus on global health in this book is quite different from the discipline of international public health. The concept of global health extends our conceptual frame and emphasises important large scale and more ecological dimensions of the health risks that now confront whole communities and populations. The concept of global health takes in the unprecedented demands and stresses of nature’s life-support system on the stability and resilience of cultures, societies and communities.

With these two scene-setting chapters, the book then proceeds in the other 28 chapters to consider primary, secondary and tertiary impacts of climate change on global health and the anticipated effects of climate change on health in various regions of the world. In the two concluding chapters for both of which Butler is the senior author, there is a thoughtful discussion of the kinds of transformation that will be needed and the role that health activism can play in bringing that transformation about. Colin Butler is senior or sole author of 5 of the 30 chapters and a co-author of one other. Each chapter is a paper in itself. Following the two scene setting chapters by Steffen and McMichael, there are four chapters devoted to the primary effects on health of climate change, six chapters devoted to secondary effects with a particular focus on parasites, allergens and wildfires; three chapters on tertiary effects including famine, migration and the intersection of climate change with conflict and ill-health.

Part five of the volume has eight chapters, which focus on specific regional issues ranging from Asia to Latin America to small island states, to Europe, the Arctic, and Africa.

Part six has five cross cutting chapters which focus on politics, poverty, mental health, housing and socio-economic pathways.

The book concludes with part 7, which is about activism and pathways to a global solution for the climate change threat.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this book warrants a place in every general library and every health library in the world. It speaks to the biggest crisis in human history and it speaks with authority about the nature and complexity of that crisis. Inevitably, much of what is contained in the book is debatable and some of it is conjectural, because there are limits to the science and the inferences that can be drawn from it. That is the book’s strength. It starts with unequivocal science and moves to the likely implications of that science. The implications are not attractive and for that reason many of us do not wish to explore them.

The book is extremely timely. Many of us believe that the next five years will determine whether or not global human civilisation will survive or fall. And, that on our present trajectory it will fall. When, how and how quickly is far from clear. Those who are closest to the data are extremely depressed especially in the light of the systematic denial and inaction in our own government and many other governments around the world. Agreement in Paris 2015, about global emissions is probably our last chance as a human species to work together and begin to deconstruct the stranglehold, which corporations have on the structure of global society.

Is there serious basis for hope that we can turn the ship around? Last month in San Francisco, a number of leading thinkers and researchers met together in a conference entitled “Earth at risk.” A number of the leading thinkers at that meeting have undertaken chilling interviews, that are now doing the rounds on social media. I find the analysis offered by a number of these people including Chris Hedges, Guy McPherson and Derrick Jensen very compelling and I commend these interviews to you. They beautifully complement the central messages of this book.

Chris Hedges argues that the world is now in the stranglehold of corporate totalitarianism. That even though most governments around the world understand the seriousness of the predicament we are now in, they are paralysed, because they are captives and even servants of the powerful corporate world of industrial capitalism for whom concern for the long term welfare and well-being of human society is subjugated absolutely to the short-term profits of their shareholders.

George Monbiot discussing this issue of untrammelled corporate power said this week in his column: “This is not only about politicians, it is also about us. Corporate power has shut down our imagination, persuading us that there is no alternative to market fundamentalism, and that “market” is a reasonable description of a state-endorsed corporate oligarchy. We have been persuaded that we have power only as consumers, that citizenship is an anachronism, that changing the world is either impossible or best effected by buying a different brand of biscuits. Corporate power now lives within us. Confronting it means shaking off the manacles it has imposed on our minds.

In Hedge’s view, nothing short of dismantling of the current corporatist totalitarian structures will suffice to enable the survival of human civilisation. And like Monbiot, he thinks it must happen very quickly. Each of us has a role to play and the role goes well beyond the conventional petitions, entreaties to politicians and protest marches.

I note that Colin Butler was arrested for civil disobedience at Maules Creek a couple of weeks ago for trying to obstruct the coal mining process and now faces the possible threat of a long jail sentence. Bravo Colin, you are showing the way not only by your writings, but by your actions.

I have pleasure in helping to declare this book launched. I have little doubt that it will quickly become a standard textbook for activists and researchers. I would have liked to express the expectation that our politicians will be galvanised by it, but I fear that if Hedges is right, they will be obligated by their corporate masters to try and discredit and ignore it.

Congratulations to all who have brought this important project to fruition.”




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