In Courage, Hope.

Emergency Physicians excel at facing tough situations. You walk in when the odds seem near impossible and will do your best despite whatever obstacles are present. In a way this is your bread and butter, your M.O, our pride.

But here we are, hurtling towards a new challenge of almighty, almost unthinkable proportions. And it’s a truth whose gaze many of us still find hard to meet. It’s the future, coming at us faster than we can get our heads around. Climate change, climate breakdown, climate catastrophe, this global crisis of unprecedented fury –  however you want to term it – is knocking on our door, ready to disrupt everything we hold dear. You see, the climate crisis is no longer a ‘belief’; something you can choose to ignore, or find yourself another team to support. It’s not like faith, or political persuasion, or any other ideology. You don’t get to choose. It is a red, hot fact. And every single one of us has a role to play.

You’ve all heard the numbers. The latest UN IPCC report tells us the planet has already warmed over 1 degree. This is not much short of the 1.5 degrees the previous report said would be the tipping point, and we are nowhere near the emissions reductions required to rein in the increase. Four degrees, which will happen by the end of the century if there is inadequate action, means an uninhabitable planet.

But the numbers, clearly and scientifically backed up, don’t seem to be enough. Still too many of us look away. We avoid the hard conversations and try to pretend the truth isn’t there, leaving it to lurk in the periphery of our reality.

Maybe we need to see it closer, smell it, view it as we do other unpalatable things, to prepare ourselves to deal with it no matter the cost. We need to have our eyes open and see what will imminently threaten our patients and the world they inhabit. In Australia we have watched roads and train tracks buckling in previously unrecorded temperatures, seen the skies emptying themselves of birds, viewed once blue and sparkling rivers drying out to mud and spewing up dead, rotting fish, seen coral reefs bleached and withering to sea dust. Next door to our cities with our shops and Christmas lights and roof-top bars lie scorched, cracked salt plains littered with white rib cages and skulls. Species have blinked out overnight. Glaciers have dissolved, ice shelves crumbling to nothing.

Still too abstract? We see vulnerable patients dying from the heat, or suffering in the wake of newly strengthened climate events: hurricanes, floods, wildfires. These are real and present threats to health, and health, which all of us know and believe, is a human right.

Because it’s not just what’s on our own doorsteps. Somehow we’ve had an inability to extend empathy to other humans in lands distant. We need to recognise that each of us on this earth, despite the lottery of birth, have the same rights, and we all have a responsibility to each other. It is an interconnected planet: there are powerful bonds between every living person, as well as between humanity and ecology. Nobody has more basic rights than another, and what we do in our lucky western lives intimately affects those for whom the wheel of fortune has spun less favourably. Island nations are already beginning to go under. Droughts and food insecurity are rearing up, ready to create unimaginable numbers of refugees. Oceans are at their tipping point, fish stocks dwindling. The Prime Minister of Fiji, at the recent UN summit, said, ‘acceptance of this living nightmare is morally unthinkable and denial is unconscionable.’ It should not have to take our own mansions slipping into the sea, or our riches being whittled away to make us act. The time to act is now. Well yesterday, but in the impossibility of that, today.

But this is a Christmas Column. And the theme of Christmas is hope. However, there can only be hope in strength, in courage. The first thing we must, and can, as a group do, is not look away, as difficult as it is. It needs to part of every conversation, every meeting, every vote, every school’s syllabus. The facts are in; if we cut to net neutral emissions immediately we might be able to at least slow the freight train. This is our great, our only hope.

Your voice matters. Your opinion matters. Your support of protests and climate emergency declarations helps. Your dollar going towards those doing the hard yards, as well as removed from those who are not, is powerful. Your votes are critical. Your conversations in your departments are vital. Your preparedness is imperative. But most of all it is your bravery, while 2019 winds itself down to slumber, that will hold the only hope we have. This is our Christmas, all of ours. It is time.

About the author

Dr Michelle Johnston is a consultant Emergency Physician who works at an inner city hospital. Mostly her days consist of trauma and mess. Also, she writes.

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