Professor Tim Flannery is a highly respected scientist and a former Australian of the Year. He is the chief climate commissioner and his views and expertise on the science of climate change are respected nationally and internationally. The AMA was delighted to have professor Flannery attend our recent national conference as a keynote speaker in a policy session on health and the environment.

The audience for professor Flannery’s presentation contained around 200 of the nation’s leading medical practitioners, representing all the major medical specialties, city and rural practice, hospitals and private practice, research, seasoned veterans and young doctors concerned about the future. They sat riveted to professor Flannery’s talk on the health effects of climate change.

I was in that room, too. I listened to every word. The issues were highly relevant to my work, my patients, my family and, as he pointed out, my grandchildren.

Professor Flannery presented the facts. The science. The evidence.

As the World Health Organisation clearly states: “Climate change affects the fundamental requirements for health clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food and secure shelter.”

The AMA’s position statement on climate change and health states: “The world’s climate — our life-support system — is being altered in ways that are likely to pose significant direct and indirect challenges to health.”

Climate change and health is a big issue. It affects us all. It is based on evidence. It is real. Vector-borne diseases like dengue will be on the march south. The frequency of extreme weather events will increase.

It is disturbing, though, when experts in their field — people like professor Flannery who are informing and educating the community — are taken out of context and ridiculed, and when the scientist is discredited for telling the truth.

What makes it worse is when the harshest critics were not even there, not in the room.

At the end of his presentation to the AMA, professor Flannery took questions from the floor. One question — it may have been the last question of the day — was about mercury, its toxicity and its effect on health. During his talk he had pointed out that burning coal in coal-fired power stations was the main source of mercury pollution. He told us that, within days to weeks, the mercury in the smoke had drifted across and settled to the surface in the oceans, was consumed by plankton, and then by larger and larger fish, finally ending up on our table.

Even the Food and Drug Administration has recommended that pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and young children avoid eating top of food chain fish with a high mercury content (>1 ppm), such as shark, swordfish and fresh and frozen tuna (but not canned tuna).

The evidence is in. Mercury in the environment is harmful.

But here is the tricky part: as part of his explanation on mercury poisoning, professor Flannery used the example of amalgam tooth fillings.

That single quirky comment on tooth fillings to illustrate a point was initially reported by a journalist who attended the conference — responsibly reported, and not sensationalised (except for the headline).

In the days after the conference, other reports and columns — by people who did not attend the conference, did not ask for professor Flannery’s speaking notes, did not contact the AMA — twisted and distorted the comments. Worse, they launched personal and professional attacks on professor Flannery — denying the evidence and denigrating him personally (see here and here).

This is not a one-off event.  We have seen many attacks on scientists in recent times over the science of changing climate. The attacks come from people who reject the science because it does not accord with their own views. These people do not present credible evidence to support their alternate view. They should not be afforded the profile in the media that they seem to attract.

Professor Flannery spoke authoritatively on the important topic of climate change and health, covering many issues that are endorsed by the AMA, the World Medical Association, the British Medical Association, the British Medical Journal, the Medical Journal of Australia, the UK Royal College of Physicians, and many other leading medical and health organisations in Australia and around the world.

He and his scientific colleagues should be applauded for educating us about a significant threat to our environment and to human health.

They should not be exposed to uninformed attacks from people who do not bother to check the facts or the evidence. It is a disgrace.

Peter Fray

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