World’s GP bodies call on international leaders to act urgently on climate emergency

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Royal Australian College of GPs

The world’s leading GP and health bodies representing three million health professionals worldwide are urging international leaders to safeguard the health of global populations from the climate crisis in an open letter, to be launched on day three of the WONCA World Conference in Sydney.

WONCA 2023, from 26 to 29 October, is being hosted by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) – bringing one of the largest global conferences for GPs to Australia for the first time in over 20 years.

On day two of the conference, Green Day, the focus is on the environment and sustainability, with keynote presentations by Prof Enrique Falceto One minute for the planet and Dr Maria Neira, The Health Argument for Climate Action. It will also see the WONCA Awards ceremony and official handover of the WONCA Presidency to Australian Dr Karen Flegg.

Representatives of the world’s GP and family doctor organisations will don green to launch the open letter, which has 39 signatories, including the RACGP, Australia’s largest representative group for GPs. The letter urges governments to adopt the following measures as urgent health interventions:

  • end expansion of any new fossil fuel infrastructure and production
  • phase out existing production and use of fossil fuels
  • remove fossil fuel subsidies and invest in renewable energy
  • fast track a just transition away from fossil fuel energy systems

Professor Enrique Falceto de Barros, a rural Brazilian GP and climate advocate, said: “WONCA recognises the climate emergency. Many doctors want to talk to their patients about it, but do not feel prepared.

“In 2023, most of the states in Brazil experienced a historic heatwave in winter. While in southern states we had one of the most intense floods ever. So, Brazil has definitely entered the age of climate emergency.”

Dr Maria Neira, World Health Organization Director for the Department of Environmental, Climate Change and Health said: “Climate change has been identified as potentially the greatest health challenge of the twenty-first century.

“The world is warming at a faster rate than at any time in human history, due mainly to the burning of fossil fuels. Polluting energy systems cause almost 7 million premature deaths from air pollution each year.

“But unfortunately, the world is not yet responding to the scale of this challenge.

“This is why, we need a strong health voice at the climate change negotiations and COP28 will host the first-ever day dedicated to Health in the history of the climate negotiations. Health can be the ultimate motivation for more climate action, health professionals have a critical role to play.”

RACGP Specific Interests Climate and Environmental Medicine Chair Dr Catherine Pendrey said climate change is a public health emergency and GPs worldwide are seeing the impacts on communities.

“We are in a climate emergency and if our leaders don’t act urgently, it will be too late. GPs worldwide are seeing the devastating impacts of the climate crisis on the patients and communities we care for every day,” she said.

“More extreme bushfires, floods, droughts, and storms have catastrophic impacts on human health, including physical and mental health. Around the world, these disasters are causing a devastating loss of life, displacement of families and entire communities, and disruption of livelihoods.

“Today, GPs and health professionals of the world are uniting to call on the world’s leaders to act, and urgently transition away from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy – for the health and wellbeing of Australians, and all people worldwide.”

RACGP President Dr Nicole Higgins said Australia and the world needs to be prepared for the health impacts of climate change.

“As Australia prepares for what’s predicted to be one of the worst bushfire seasons since Black Saturday, it is yet another reminder of what our new ‘normal’ looks like,” she said.

“Preventative action is crucial, and GPs have an important role to play, including in discussing and motivating patients to prepare emergency plans based on local climate threats and their own personal circumstances and health needs.

“We also need to consider the environmental impact of primary care. While general practice only accounts for 4% of the health sector’s total contribution to Australia’s total carbon emissions, there is still much to be done. I’m pleased that the RACGP is presenting today on the College’s own carbon footprint and journey towards sustainability – because we all have a role to play to safeguard our communities from the climate crisis.”

The WONCA 2023 conference theme is “Recovery, reconnection, and revival. A celebration of primary care.” This year’s conference includes more than 800 presentations and workshops from over 700 local and international presenters from around the world, and over 50 topic streams, including health reform, mental health, women’s health, climate change, rural practice, and more.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) is the peak representative organisation for general practice, the backbone of Australia’s health system. We set the standards for general practice, facilitate lifelong learning for GPs, connect the general practice community, and advocate for better health and wellbeing for all Australians.


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