The advertising campaign of the coal industry could be described at best as disingenuous and against the public health interest. Coal burning is the main cause of the rise in global greenhouse gas emissions, and the health impacts of climate change are now a priority of the World Health Organisation. The Lancet, one of the world’s most influential medical journals, states:

Greenhouse emissions from fossil fuel are driving climate change, which is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.

In a recent letter published in medical journals, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) joined 17 other medical colleges from five continents to emphasise the potentially catastrophic health consequences of global warming.

Coal is enormously expensive, immeasurably so if all the economic externalities of climate change including those on health are considered. In Australia climate change will bring increased heat stroke; injury from fire and storm; infectious diseases; social disruption and mental illness.

In the developing world it will bring famine, water shortage and dislocation of populations. Some impacts are occurring already but will happen more so in the future, and so tend not to be of immediate legislative concern to governments. However, the health cost of coal, which occurs right, now must be considered.

The health impact of pollution from coal in China is horrific but even in developed countries such as the US, 23,000 deaths each year mostly due to cardio-respiratory disease, are attributed to air pollution, mostly from coal power stations.

It was estimated to cause 5% of male cancer deaths and 3% of female cancer deaths between1970-1994. Data from Australia is not available but there is no reason to believe that the situation in the La Trobe or Hunter has been materially different. Today technological improvements have significantly reduced the harmful particulates from coal burning but some are still released as well as carcinogens and mercury.

This is a polluting industry and always will be, and it is illogical to give financial concessions that will prevent its containment and defeat the effectiveness of a CPRS. The industry is still expanding with encouragement in some states even with dirty coal.

An appropriate government response to the actions of the coal industry might be to ask for an independent report on the existing costs of the health impacts of coal, a report directed by say the RACP with academic economic input.

So let’s look at the other side of the equation: the economic damage and loss of jobs claimed by the coal industry. Loss of a job certainly has health consequences. Based on a commissioned report, Hillman states: “We’ve done modelling that indicates that 9000 jobs Australia-wide will be lost in the coal mining industry” (in the report these were losses inside and outside the industry over 10 years).

However, it should be appreciated that even if this was so, there are creditable independent international studies indicating that creating markets for low-carbon technologies will in turn create new job opportunities and that these will be greater than the number of jobs lost in carbon-intensive sectors. So what’s the problem with an orderly transfer of jobs over the next decade?

In response to a question about the quality of political debate, Professor Garnaut has said: “I think this whole process of policy making over the ETS has been one of the worst examples of policy making we have seen on major issues in Australia.”

We struggle in a climate of ignorance; elected representatives run around mouthing the press releases of the coal industry and the glib comments of press commentators, when few of either group have taken the time to get to grips with the complex science.

This is distressing to the many busy doctors who have taken the time to study these matters and are now deeply concerned. To those of our elected representatives who, in their ideology, can still delude themselves by applying the dismissive words  “environmental” or “green” to the issue let us say that fundamentally the issue is one of the health and security — for all of us.

David Shearman is a practising doctor, E/Professor of Medicine and Hon Secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia, which concerns itself with the with links between the environment and human health

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